Suit Over Bible-Instruction Program Revived by 4th Circuit

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A West Virginia school district may have to disband its nearly 80-year-old “Bible in the Schools” program following a Fourth Circuit ruling in favor of an agnostic parent. 

The reversal Monday notes that the course offered by Mercer County Schools includes “30 minutes of weekly Bible instruction for elementary school students and 45 minutes for middle school students ‘as a part of the regular school day.’” 

Agnostic parent Elizabeth Deal says she refused to give permission for her daughter, Jessica, to participate in the class as a first grader at Memorial Primary School, but that Mercer failed to offer Jessica alternative instruction.

After initially making Jessica sit in a coatroom at the back of Bible class, according to the complaint, the school later sequestered the child in the library and a computer lab, among other locations. Deal says other students bullied her daughter for her lack of religious affiliation, and that by fourth grade she had to enroll Jessica in a neighboring district. 

Meantime Deal’s suit prompted Mercer to suspend its Bible instruction program, and a federal judge determined that this suspension mooted Deal’s suit. 

But the Richmond, Va.-based Fourth Circuit found Monday that the mere suspension of the program does little to shield the city from liability.

Writing for a three-person appellate panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Diana Motz emphasized that, in addition to not eliminating the Bible program outright, Mercer is by its own admission “fighting” to retain the program. 

“Indeed, the county has characterized the suspension as part of a regular review process, a dubious suggestion in view of the program’s uninterrupted, decades-long history,” the ruling states.

Ultimately, the judge found no evidence “that the suspended version of the BITS program will not return in identical or materially indistinguishable form.”

The ruling calls the Deals’ asserted injuries clearly traceable to the Bible instruction program, and says an injunction would go a long way toward redressing that harm.

“If the district court were to enjoin the county from offering the BITS 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,” Motz wrote. 

“Moreover, an injunction would also alleviate appellants’ ongoing feelings of marginalization,” the opinion continues, adding that “an injunction would eliminate the source of that message and thereby redress appellants’ alleged injuries.”

Motz emphasized that the Deals’ feelings of marginalization “constitute an independently actionable injury.”

“Applied here, the ‘opportunity’ to return Jessica to her home district, in addition to alleviating appellants’ ongoing feelings of marginalization, is surely a ‘tangible benefit’ sufficient to confer standing,” the ruling states.

Attorneys for the Deals at the Freedom from Religion Foundation celebrated the reversal as a “big blow for public, secular education.” 

“We hope the school district will finally put an end to these indoctrinating bible classes — and to any attempts to bring them back,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president and co-founder of the  organization, said in a statement. “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.”

The Deals were represented on appeal by Marcus Schneider of the Pittsburgh firm Steel Schneider. Mercer County meanwhile was represented by Washington, D.C., lawyer David Richard Dorey and by Hannah Eliades Dunham with O’Melveny & Myers.

Representatives for the Mercer County School District did not return a request for comment.

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