Written by Don Byrd

The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has reversed a district court ruling which dismissed a lawsuit challenging Bible courses in West Virginia’s Mercer County. The district court previously dismissed the suit on the grounds that 1) the plaintiffs, a student and her mother, lacked standing to bring the Establishment Clause claim because the student no longer attends Mercer County schools, and 2) that the claim is not “ripe” because the district had suspended the program. The curriculum in question provided weekly Bible instruction to public school students during the school day if their parents return a permission slip, which almost all parents did.

The appeals court disagreed with both rationales for dismissing the suit. Here is an excerpt from the opinion discussing the issue of the student no longer attending Mercer County schools:

If the district court were to enjoin the County from offering the [Bible in the Schools] program to students in the future, Deal (the student’s mother) would no longer feel compelled to send Jessica to a neighboring school district to avoid what Deal views as state-sponsored religious instruction. Moreover, an injunction would also alleviate appellants’ ongoing feelings of marginalization. We have explained that “[f]eelings of marginalization and exclusion are cognizable forms of injury, particularly in the Establishment Clause context, because one of the core objectives of modern Establishment Clause jurisprudence has been to prevent the State from sending a message to non-adherents of a particular religion ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.’” An injunction would eliminate the source of that message and thereby redress appellants’ alleged injuries.

The appeals court also dispensed with the argument that the program’s suspension meant the claim was “unripe.” Because the district characterized the Bible in the Schools classes as “suspended” rather than eliminated, the appeals court found inappropriate the argument that the claim could not go forward. At any time, the district could re-start the troublesome program, and thus the complaint was not moot or unripe, the court concluded.

You can read the opinion here. For more on the Mercer County program see earlier posts here and here.