pencils_newWritten by Don Byrd

A new lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation claims a longstanding public school program in Mercer County, West Virginia, violates separation of church and state provisions of the federal and state constitutions. Mercer’s “Bible in Schools” program offers weekly instruction in the Bible during the school day to elementary and middle school students. The complaint alleges that the lessons in the program endorse religion unlawfully and that through the program the county improperly coerces students and parents into participating.

The classes are voluntary but “the overwhelming majority of students participate in Bible classes,” according to the suit, which further alleges that the school district has failed to provide adequate alternate instruction. Beyond that, though, is a central problem with so-called “voluntary” religious activity during the school day: students are put in a difficult position. Opting out can create such isolation and judgement from their peers that it is not so optional after all.

Here is a key excerpt on that point from the complaint:

If the “Bible in Schools” program continues, Jamie Doe and Jane Doe face two untenable choices beginning in the first grade and continuing each year thereafter. Jamie will either be forced to attend bible indoctrination classes against the wishes and conscience of Jane Doe, or Jamie will be the only or one of only a few children who do not participate. Jamie will therefore be made conspicuous by absence, and essentially be identified as a non-Christian or nonbeliever, subjecting Jamie to the risk of ostracism from peers and even school staff.

Education about religion as part of history or literature classes, or as a comparative religions course, can be an appropriate curricular offering in public schools, provided they are careful not to promote religion. Religious instruction in a public school, however – particularly for young children – runs the risk of jeopardizing the religious liberty of students and parents alike.

For more, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resources on religion in the public schools.