It’s entirely legal for public schools to offer a “Bible as Literature” elective in which students who choose to take the class study the Bible as an influence on society and as a classical book, full of broad themes and important stories (which are often alluded to in other works).
What’s not legal is for those schools to preach the Bible. At no point can a teacher claim the Bible stories are “true” or an accurate reflection of our history. It’d be wrong, to say the least, and it’d be an unconstitutional promotion of religion.
But the Mercer County Schools in West Virginia have been preaching the Bible for decades — 75 years, in fact — to students in elementary and middle school. And now the district is being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The plaintiffs (other than FFRF) are a mother and her child, a kindergartner who attends a school in the District. Their names are kept anonymous in the lawsuit, presumably for their own safety. And while the bulk of the lawsuit focuses on why this curriculum crosses the line, it also explains why this family has the standing to bring the case: The child will inevitably be ostracized as a first grader if he opts out of taking the class. Better to shut down the illegal classes now than deal with the social isolation next year.
So what are the problems with the course?
- The District requires that teachers of this course have “a degree in Bible,” whatever that means.
- One lesson “includes images of Jesus being whipped and tortured, Jesus’ scarred body dragging a cross, Jesus being nailed to a cross, and Jesus ascending into heaven.” (That goes far beyond the mere teaching of the Jesus story in a secular way.)
- The goals of the curriculum included helping students develop a “positive attitude towards biblical literature,” “harmonizing the Matthew and Luke accounts of the birth of Jesus,” and “harmonizing the four gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus.” Again, all are endorsements of the Bible.
- Students who opt out of the course are not necessarily receiving reasonable “alternative instruction” as the District requires.
- The curriculum promotes the false doctrine of Creationism, including the belief that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. Here are some excerpts from the lessons:
“Moses was saying that when a dolphin had a little baby — it didn’t have a baby octopus. It had a baby dolphin that was like itself. When a shark had a baby — it didn’t have a baby eagle or a baby sea turtle — the shark had a baby shark that was like itself.”
“So 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!”
“If all of the Israelites had chosen to follow the Ten Commandments, think of how safe and happy they would have been. They would never have been afraid someone would go into their tents and steal something. They would never have been afraid someone was lying about them. They would never have been afraid that anyone would hurt them — or someone they loved.”
(That last bit skipped the whole part about being put to death for working on the Sabbath.)
Those are just some of the problems. It’s appalling that this course has been taught for so long, but when you realize how many students take the classes, it’s no wonder some parents might have been afraid to speak out until now.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes: “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such religious instruction unconstitutional more than 65 years ago, in the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education. It’s unacceptable that such clearly unconstitutional indoctrination is still being conducted in any public schools“…
It’s hard to see how such a course could be considered secular by any reasonable judge… the question is really whether the lawsuit could be dismissed on a technicality. Does the mother’s concern about her child being ostracized next year give them the standing needed to bring forth this case?
We’ll find out soon enough.