Written by Don Byrd

When is it ok to teach classes about the Bible in public schools? That question will have to wait for another day in Mercer County, West Virginia, after a judge dismissed a lawsuit on the grounds that it was not ripe for a ruling.

The plaintiffs argue the program, which offers voluntary, privately funded, weekly Bible study to elementary and middle school students during the school day, violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. Even though students can opt out of the program, the parents who filed suit contend that their children are placed in an impossible position: either attend classes of indoctrination that runs counter to their conscience, or be isolated by choosing not to participate. The First Amendment, they say, does not allow a public school system to put their children to such a choice.

In dismissing the suit this week, the judge did not address that question. Instead, he pointed to the fact that the school district voted to suspend the program “for at least a year” to review the curriculum and consider modifications. Because of that, and because such cases are very fact-dependent, the judge ruled, it is not time to evaluate the constitutionality of the Mercer County curriculum. Here is an excerpt from the opinion.

…the Bible in the Schools program of which plaintiffs’ complain is not currently offered nor will it be offered in the future. Furthermore, should a Bible in the Schools curriculum reemerge, the court has no information before it to determine the content of such a class. With “no facts before us to determine whether the [BITS program] might violate the Establishment Clause,” the court is left unable to engage in the context-dependent inquiry of a future BITS curriculum. Therefore, until the Bible in the Schools curriculum that Jamie Doe will actually encounter “is presented in clean-cut and concrete form,” this action is not ripe for judicial review.

Bible courses in public schools raise incredibly important church-state questions, not just because they involve taxpayer-funded school systems, but because they impact children. As courts have long observed, children can be more susceptible to coercion and often require more protection under the law as a result.

To be clear, religion can be appropriately taught in public schools, so long as the focus is on instruction about religions and not religious indoctrination. The ban on religions indoctrination in public schools is a great protector of religious liberty, because it helps preserve for all students and their parents their rights of conscience.

For more on this topic, and helpful guidelines, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resources on religion in the public schools.