Appeals Court Reverses Judge’s Dismissal of Lawsuit Challenging Elective ‘Bible in the Schools’ Program

RICHMOND, Va. — The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has unanimously reversed a judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging a now-suspended “Bible in the Schools” program in West Virginia, stating that if an injunction had been issued, it would have assuaged a student and her atheist mother who took sent the girl to another school district to avoid “state-sponsored religious instruction.”

“If the district court were to enjoin the county from offering the BITS (Bible in the Schools) program to students in the future, Deal would no longer feel compelled to send Jessica to a neighboring school district to avoid what Deal views as state-sponsored religious instruction,” wrote Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, nominated to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton.

“Moreover, an injunction would also alleviate appellants’ ongoing feelings of marginalization,” she stated.

Gribbon Motz was joined in her opinion by Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr., nominated to the bench by Donald Trump, and Allyson Duncan, nominated to the bench by then-President George W. Bush.

As previously reported, Mercer County Schools had offered weekly Bible classes to elementary and middle school students for over 75 years—that is, until last year, when it decided to suspend its “Bible in the Schools” program after being sued by the the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).

The atheist-led organization initially filed a complaint behalf of an atheist parent, only identified as “Jane Doe,” whose daughter was in kindergarten at the time.

The woman expressed concern that because most students choose to attend the elective Bible classes, her daughter could be ostracized by others if she decided not to join the program. She stated that her only choices were to expose her daughter to Christianity against her will or risk having her daughter looked down upon by others.

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“Jamie will either be forced to attend Bible indoctrination classes against the wishes and conscience of Jane Doe, or Jamie will be the only or one of only a few children who do not participate. Jamie will therefore be made conspicuous by absence, and essentially be identified as a non-Christian or nonbeliever, subjecting Jamie to the risk of ostracism from peers and even school staff,” the suit claimed.

FFRF later amended its complaint, adding Elizabeth Deal and her daughter, Jessica, to the legal challenge. Deal stated that she moved her daughter out of the school system because other students were allegedly taunting her for opting out of the weekly class and instead being sent to the library or computer lab.

In November 2017, U.S. District Judge David Faber dismissed the lawsuit, stating that because the Mercer County Board of Education voted to suspend its Bible in the Schools course, there is currently no case.

“This court finds it too speculative whether the problem [the Plaintiffs] present will ever need solving; we find the legal issues [the Plaintiffs] raise not fit for our consideration, and the hardship to [the Plaintiffs] of biding [their] time insubstantial,” he wrote.

However, Deal and her daughter appealed, while attorneys for the school district argued that the complainants lacked standing because the girl has not returned to the school system in the year since the Bible classes were suspended.

“Appellants’ challenge is also unripe and currently unfit for review because BITS has been indefinitely suspended, and any possible replacement ‘Bible in the Schools’ curriculum remains uncertain and speculative,” its rebuttal brief stated. “Moreover, [Jessica] does not now attend Mercer County Schools, and Deal has no intention of changing that fact.”

“Thus, Appellants lack standing to seek prospective injunctive relief and would face no harm in delaying review of the BITS program until the time of its potential future reinstatement,” the district argued.

On Monday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously sided with Deal and overturned Faber’s dismissal of the case. In addition to opining that an injunction would rectify Deal’s concerns, the court said it wasn’t convinced that the Bible classes wouldn’t be resurrected.

“In sum, the county has not carried its burden of showing that subsequent events make it ‘absolutely clear’ that the suspended version of the BITS program will not return in identical or materially indistinguishable form. Appellants’ current claims are therefore not moot,” Gribbon Motz wrote.

FFRF cheered the outcome, remarking in a statement, “We hope the school district will finally put an end to these indoctrinating Bible classes—and to any attempts to bring them back. No family should suffer the way this family did just because it was unwilling to have religion forced upon it in a public school system.”

As previously reported, in 1828, just 41 years after the signing of the U.S. Constitution, Noah Webster, known as the Father of American Scholarship and Education, wrote, “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed. … No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”

Webster’s famous “Blue Back Speller” for students referenced Christianity, including God-centered statements in reading lessons such as “The preacher is to preach the gospel,” “Blasphemy is contemptuous treatment of God,” and “We do not like to see our own sins.”

View sample pages from Webster’s Blue Back Speller here.

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