A West Virginia school district has finally paid up for decades of Christian indoctrination, putting an end to a five-year legal battle waged by a courageous student who faced considerable harassment over her “Bible in the Schools” class.
All of this occurred in the Mercer County Schools, which offered “elective” Bible courses at the elementary and middle school levels for over 75 years. Why put “elective” in quotation marks? Because it was clear that students who didn’t participate in the courses were treated like pariahs and bullied by their peers.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with teaching students about the Bible or acknowledging it as an influential piece of literature. Typically, those classes only cross a line when teachers preach to the students or act like the Bible is the actual Word of God.
But in 2017, mother Elizabeth Deal and her daughter sued the district, claiming that the courses routinely resembled a church service rather than a class designed for a public school curriculum. Their lawsuit laid out a number of concerns about the weekly course, any one of which would have been a problem on its own. Collectively, it showed an egregious violation of the law:
- The District required that teachers of the “Bible in the Schools” program have “a degree in Bible,” whatever that was supposed to mean. That meant secular experts in history or literature couldn’t teach the classes, but graduates of a seminary could.
- One lesson “include[d] images of Jesus being whipped and tortured, Jesus’ scarred body dragging a cross, Jesus being nailed to a cross, and Jesus ascending into heaven.” That went far beyond the mere teaching of the Jesus myth in a secular way.
- The goals of the curriculum included helping students develop a “positive attitude towards biblical literature,” “harmonizing the Matthew and Luke accounts of the birth of Jesus,” and “harmonizing the four gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus.” All of those went far beyond objective analysis of the Bible and suggested an endorsement of the text. It implied that the Bible reflected reality and was quite literally a good book.
- Students who opted out of the course were not necessarily receiving reasonable “alternative instruction” as the District required.
Making matters worse, the curriculum promoted the false doctrine of Creationism, including the belief that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, which directly contradicted what they were supposed to be learning in science class. Here are some excerpts from the lessons:
- “Moses was saying that when a dolphin had a little baby — it didn’t have a baby octopus. It had a baby dolphin that was like itself. When a shark had a baby — it didn’t have a baby eagle or a baby sea turtle — the shark had a baby shark that was like itself.”
- “So picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!”
- “If all of the Israelites had chosen to follow the Ten Commandments, think of how safe and happy they would have been. They would never have been afraid someone would go into their tents and steal something. They would never have been afraid someone was lying about them. They would never have been afraid that anyone would hurt them — or someone they loved.” (That last bit skipped the whole part about being put to death for working on the Sabbath.)
At the time the lawsuit was filed, even the district’s supporters didn’t seem to grasp the problem. The Washington Post spoke with one local pastor who inadvertently admitted the truth:
Supporters are adamant that the weekly class is an elective meant to explore the history and literature of the Bible, not to promote religious belief.
“My experience with it has been very positive. I’ve never known of anyone who has been pressured or felt ostracized,” said the Rev. David W. Dockery, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Princeton. “Any time God’s word can be proclaimed is beneficial and is a good thing.”
The pastor’s defense of an objective Bible course was to admit it was a form of indoctrination and that he loved it, while adding that no one he knew inside his bubble had a problem with the course. Of course they didn’t. His comments said far more about his lack of empathy and social awareness than anything else. Dockery had all the energy of a male boss saying sexual harassment didn’t exist in his workplace because he never heard anything about it.
When Joe Heim, the reporter for that piece, asked the district if he could sit in on one of the classes just to watch and observe, the district refused his request.
And to those who argued the class was optional so critics needed to lay off, Elizabeth Deal told the Post what her daughter went through for not taking the class:
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.”
No student should be subject to any of that, and the district did nothing to make not taking the Bible class a viable alternative. That’s why Deal filed the lawsuit.
Over the course of the next several years, the case took a number of twists and turns.
A federal judge said the Deals didn’t have legal standing to bring the case because they were no longer in in the district. The judge also said that since the district had temporarily suspended the courses (promising to bring them back only after revisions), the whole lawsuit was moot.
However, the Deals appealed the decision, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that they had ample standing. After all, the family was forced to spend money to send the daughter to a neighboring district, the daughter faced “marginalization and exclusion” for not taking the course, and she regularly endured religious promotion by the school. The judges added that temporarily suspending the courses didn’t mean the district couldn’t just bring them back in the exact same form after the case ended. Therefore this lawsuit needed to be judged on its merits. (An attempt by the district to have the Supreme Court overturn that decision failed in 2019.)
Then the school district said it would end the Bible in School program entirely—which is fantastic—but that led to another dismissal of the lawsuit in mid-2020. However, the judge later said both sides still needed to address the damage done to the Deals.
And that’s where the case has finally reached its conclusion.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which assisted the Deals with their lawsuit, says the district has agreed to pay out $225,000 (via their insurance) to cover all costs and attorneys’ fees. They said the payments “will reimburse two private law firms and FFRF for hundreds of hours of time spent by attorneys litigating the case.”
FFRF added that they will be honoring the student with an award and $5,000 scholarship.
“FFRF’s lawsuit ended the use of this material in public schools,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “We are happy to see the end to this religious instruction, but this shouldn’t have been happening in a secular public school system in the first place.”
It took over five years in court to arrive at this point, but the end result is that the course is gone, the district has to pay up (even if it’s through their insurance), and other districts have hopefully been warned about making the same mistake. All of this could have been avoided if only the school board and administrators were more interested in educating students rather than indoctrinating them with Christianity.
Instead, it took a student and her mother, back by an atheist group, to make the district do the right thing.