Foundation’s Legal Victory Today in “Scopes II” Case Halts Illegal Bible Instruction in Dayton, Tenn

Forceful Opinion Calls Instruction Like “Sunday School Class”

The Rhea County Board of Education today was forcefully ordered by U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar of Chattanooga, TN, to stop conducting an illegal Bible Education Ministry program, the subject of a federal lawsuit taken by the national Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of parents with children in Rhea County public schools.

“Rhea County, Tennessee, is no stranger to religious controversy,” writes Judge Edgar, in the opening of his 19-page decision. “In 1925, the Rhea County Courthouse was the site of the well known ‘Scopes’ or ‘Monkey’ trial, wherein high school teacher John Scopes was tried for violating a Tennessee statute making it a misdemeanor to teach ‘evolution theory’ in the State’s public schools. The trial pitted William Jennings Bryan, the ‘Great Commoner,’ representing the State, against Clarence Darrow for the defense. The legacy of that trial in some respects gives rise to this lawsuit.”

The Foundation’s lawsuit on behalf of John Doe and Mary Roe, pitted the rights of the parents, who are under a protective court order in the hostile Dayton-area community, against an obdurate school system, which refused to honor more than five decades of Supreme Court precedent against religious instruction in the public schools.

The bible instruction, carried out for decades in grades kindergarten through five in three Rhea County elementary schools, has been taught during regular school hours for 30 minutes each week without parental consent. The bible program is operated by students from Bryan College (a bible-based college founded after the Scopes trial) to help public schools students become “exposed to the Bible,” with no public school oversight. An assistant professor who is Director of Practical Christian Involvement supervises the program, which Judge Edgar characterized as what might be found in “a Sunday School class in many of the Christian churches in Rhea County.”

“The lesson plans retained by Bryan College,” Edgar wrote, “reveal that the children are being taught that the Bible conveys literal truth about God and Jesus Christ reflective of the Bryan College ‘Statement of Belief,’ ” that the bible is literally true. Students are asked to memorize bible verses, act out skits of biblical stories, and sing songs such as “Jesus Loves Me,” “My God Is So Great,” “Pharaoh, Pharaoh,” “Twelve Men Want to Spy on Canaan,” “Shout to the Lord,” “Change My Heart, Oh God,” and “I’m In The Lord’s Army.”

At oral argument, the judge’s decision noted, counsel for defendants even admitted the bible is being presented “as the truth.”

Aside from the content, Edgar said, “the wholesale delegation of the administration of that program to Bryan College, a decidedly religious institution, by itself results in an impermissible entanglement of government and religion.”

“. . . the government, through its public school system, may not teach, or allow the teaching of a distinct religious viewpoint. This is what the Rhea County School Board has done by allowing the teaching of the Bible through the BEM program. . . [acting] with both the purpose and effect to endorse and advance religion in the public schools,” Edgar wrote.

“The Rhea County courses are being taught to the youngest and most impressionable school children by college students who have no discernible educational training and no supervision by the school system.”

“This is not a close case,” Edgar observed, pointing out that since 1948, when McCollum v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court, religious instruction in public schools has been barred. The Rhea County practices do not differ substantially from McCollum, “except that, if anything, they make out an even stronger case for violation of the Establishment Clause,” Edgar concluded.

Vashti McCollum, the Champaign, Illinois mother who brought the McCollum challenge, is in her eighties, and is an honorary officer of the Foundation. The Foundation recently reprinted a new edition of her acclaimed account of her dramatic lawsuit, One Woman’s Fight. Also cited as precedent is Abington v. Schempp, against prayers in public schools. Ed Schempp, who brought that case with his son, is also an honorary Foundation officer.

“We’re delighted with Judge Edgar’s eloquent opinion upholding the rights of public school children–who are a captive audience, to be free from such overt religious proselytizing,” said Dan Barker, public relations director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “The Bible Education Ministry program was a flagrant and atavistic First Amendment violation. It’s tremendously satisfying to see the wall of separation between church and state be reinforced by such a strong decision.”

The lawsuit, filed in April 2001, arose after the school district ignored letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation pointing out that the practice violates numerous Supreme Court decisions. The attorneys representing the Foundation and its plaintiffs are Joseph H. Johnston, Nashville, and Steve Doughty and Alvin Harris, Nashville.

John Doe, Mary Roe, and Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Sue Porter, Supt. of the Rhea County School System, and Rhea County Board of Education, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Case No. 1:01-cv-115

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and others) working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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