Bible classes in schools can lead to strife among neighbors
A federal lawsuit was filed recently against the Mercer County, West Virginia Board of Education, challenging a Bible program in the elementary schools. The plaintiffs are the Freedom From Religion Foundation and two parents and their children. One parent and both children have kept their names anonymous due to fear of reprisal.
The Bible class was listed as an elective, but almost all students enrolled. The complaint alleges that the few who opted out were harassed and discriminated against. One of the plaintiffs in the case had already suffered harassment.
In my research for the book I wrote in 1999, “School Prayer and Discrimination,” I explored what happens to religious minorities and dissenters when public schools engage in sectarian prayer and Bible reading.
There is a long history of discrimination and even violence linked to Bible reading and school prayer.
What the law says
Students have always been free to pray or read the Bible on their own or with friends during free time at school. In public schools these days, student religious groups have access to school facilities before and after school to the same extent as any other noncurriculum-related student group. Any school that violates these principles would also violate the Constitution.
In contrast, school-endorsed Bible courses that promote a religious perspective have been unconstitutional since a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibited school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts – often supported by state legislatures – to get around the prohibition on Bible reading by offering Bible courses. If offered as electives and taught “objectively,” such classes could be considered constitutional.
What this means is if a public school offers a class that focuses on religion or the Bible, the material would have to be taught without promoting any particular religious position. Those of us in the law and religion field sum it up as, “Teach it, don’t preach it.”
These classes cross the line if they endorse or favor a particular religious view. The Mercer County case will thus examine if the class, as alleged, is overtly sectarian and promoted by the school, and hence unconstitutional.
Significantly, in many such cases where students opt out or dissent, parents have evidence of discrimination and harassment aimed at their children.
In fact, the United States Supreme Court acknowledged the concern about community members and school officials engaging in harassment of dissenters in an important footnote in a recent school prayer decision, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The case challenged the practice of having a student deliver a prayer over the public address system before each home varsity football game.
The United States Supreme Court quoted a lower court order prohibiting any attempt “to ferret out the identities of the plaintiffs in this cause, by means of bogus petitions, questionnaires, individual interrogation, or downright ‘snooping.’” The lower court had said it wanted the “proceedings addressed on their merits, and not on the basis of intimidation or harassment…”
As is evident from the above example, there are good reasons why families are often afraid Bible classes in schools can lead to strife among neighbors: