BLUEFIELD – The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing Mercer County Board of Education, Mercer County Schools and Superintendent Deborah S. Akers over a Bible classes program in the public school system.

FFRF is challenging the constitutionality of the “Bible in the Schools” program that is administered by Mercer County schools and provides Bible study to elementary and middle school students at 19 public schools in the county, according to a complaint filed Jan. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

The program advances and endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students, according to the suit.

Between 1939 and 1985, the Bible classes were designed, financed, administered and staffed by a small group of Mercer County citizens unaffiliated with the schools and, in 1985, the parents of eight Mercer County Schools’ students filed complaints with the West Virginia Department of Education regarding the classes and the State Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Tom McNeel, wrote to the West Virginia Attorney General and requested the parameters under which a course in the Bible or a class utilizing the Bible as a main textbook may be constitutionally taught in the public school system.

McNeel received a response that claimed that Bible instruction can be given in West Virginia public schools provided that the school’s follow nine listed guidelines. On Dec. 19, 1985, Mercer County Schools Superintendent William H. Baker sent a memo to the county’s Board of Education with the nine guidelines and surmised that the Bible classes could be brought into compliance with the guidelines.

Jane Doe and Jamie Doe claim that Jane Doe does not wish for Jamie Doe to participate in any school Bible courses or to be ostracized by other students or staff because of non-participation.

FFRF claims Jamie Doe and Jane Doe will face two untenable choices beginning in the first grade and continuing each year thereafter where Jamie Doe will either be forced to attend Bible indoctrination classes against the wishes and conscience of Jane Doe or Jamie Doe will be one of the only few children who do not participate.

Jamie will therefore be made conspicuous by absence and is essentially identified as a non-Christian or nonbeliever, which subjects him to the risk of ostracism from his peers and school staff, according to the suit.

FFRF claims the classes are held weekly for 30 minutes in elementary school and 45 minutes in middle school as part of the regular school day. While participation is voluntary, the overwhelming majority of students participate in the classes.

By administering Bible instruction in the classroom to students, the defendant and their agents or employees violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is incorporated to the states by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the suit.

FFRF claims the religious instruction also violates the West Virginia Constitution.

FFRF is seeking for the court to permanently enjoin the defendants from organizing, administering or otherwise endorsing Bible classes for Mercer students. It is being represented by Marcus B. Schneider of Steel Schneider.

The case is assigned to District Judge David Faber.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia case number: 1:17-cv-00642

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