Written by Don Byrd

School officials in Mercer County, West Virginia, last week asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Bible class offered to public school students during the instructional day. The class is voluntary, they argue, and is funded separately. But as a Washington Post report suggests, that doesn’t cure all of the church-state problems.

Here is an excerpt:

Elizabeth Deal, who describes herself as agnostic, is one of the plaintiffs in the case. Her daughter attended elementary school in nearby Bluefield, but Deal kept her out of the Bible class. Even though the class was optional, Deal said there weren’t any alternative lessons or activities for those who opted out. Her daughter was told to sit in the computer lab for that half-hour and read a book.

Bypassing the class left her vulnerable to bullying. Deal said other students told her daughter that she was going to hell. One day a student saw her daughter reading a “Harry Potter” novel and told her, according to the mother: “You don’t need to be reading this. You need to be reading the Bible.”

As former Mercer County board member Lynne White explained in a West Virginia Gazette column laying out five “lies” being told to justify the program, “it is difficult to imagine a first-grader not feeling left out when her classmates listen to Bible stories, play games to name books and verses of the Bible and earn prizes while she is sent to another classroom for extra math help.”

Even beyond the clear threat of ostracizing students who opt-out, public school programs like this are especially problematic for elementary students, who will not likely comprehend a distinction between studying the Bible for its historical and literary import and studying it as a sacred text.

That potential confusion seems just fine to some Bible-in-schools advocates.  The Post article quotes a local minister as saying, “Any time God’s word can be proclaimed is beneficial and is a good thing.” But proclaiming God’s word is not the proper realm of the public school system. In fact, doing so abrogates their responsibility to protect the religious liberty interests of all students and parents in the district.