Appeals court to hear argument in W.Va. bible class case

1Mercer

This Thursday, Nov. 1, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a high-profile case involving bible classes in a West Virginia school system. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Elizabeth Deal, a parent of a student, last year challenged in federal court proselytizing classes held in Mercer County Schools.

Bible indoctrination classes were taught in Mercer County Schools for more than 75 years until the FFRF lawsuit. FFRF’s legal complaint lists examples of the proselytizing curriculum. Lesson 2 promotes creationism by claiming humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Students are asked to “picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!” 

Following the lawsuit, the classes were suspended by the district — a major victory for FFRF. However, the federal court then dismissed FFRF’s case on jurisdictional grounds due to the suspension, even though the bible classes could resume.

Deal filed an appeal before the 4th Circuit in March of this year. The appellate brief filed by Attorney Marc Schneider and Freedom From Religion Foundation Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott argues that Deal and her daughter may continue to pursue claims against the school district even though her daughter is now attending a neighboring school system. Last November, Senior U.S. District Judge David Faber had dismissed the case on the basis of standing and a finding that the case was not yet “ripe.” Deal is appealing that action because she was forced to remove her child from the school in order to avoid the classes or subject herself to pressure to take part in them.

The brief details the misery that Deal and her daughter have undergone due to the bible course.

“Despite Elizabeth’s efforts to shield Jessica from the Christian teachings of BITS [Bible in the Schools], Jessica had direct, unwelcome contact with the classes,” it recounts. “Once Jessica was able to avoid the classes themselves, her peers began harassing her — going so far as to condemn her family to hell. To get away from BITS, Elizabeth removed Jessica from Mercer Schools and enrolled her in a different district.” The brief highlights that the school’s Christian classes made Elizabeth and Jessica feel like outsiders in the community.

Deal discussed her daughter’s mistreatment on a “CBS This Morning” news segment highlighting FFRF’s case.

“They taunted her about it,” she told CBS. “They told her that she was going to hell, that I was going to hell, that her father was going to hell.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such instruction unconstitutional in the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education case in 1948. FFRF won a court victory before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ending similar bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton), Tenn., schools in 2004.

The plaintiffs desire a result in their case in line with established precedent.

“Elizabeth and Jessica seek an injunction ending Mercer County Parties’ open endorsement of Christianity through BITS and nominal damages to vindicate the constitutional violations already visited upon them,” the brief says.

The arguments Thursday will aim toward that outcome.

“We’re relieved the bible indoctrination classes have been temporarily suspended, but a court order is needed to ensure that they will not resume,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “No child should have to undergo bullying in a public school because he or she is unwilling to endure unconstitutional religious indoctrination.”

Attorney Marc Schneider will argue the case before the 4th Circuit, which is based in Richmond, Va.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the largest freethought association in North America, with more than 32,000 members all over the United States, including in West Virginia.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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