MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — A kindergartner's mother sued her public school system in West Virginia, saying a 75-year practice of putting kids in Bible classes violates the U.S. and state constitutions.
The woman, identified as "Jane Doe" in the federal lawsuit backed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said her child will be forced either to take these weekly classes at her Mercer County elementary school or face ostracism as one of the few children who don't.
"This 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," the suit said.
The school district said the courses are voluntary electives.
According to the lawsuit, 19 elementary and middle schools in the county system offer the course, which was revised in 1986 after the parents of eight students filed complaints. Then-state Attorney General Tom McNeel issued guidelines, saying Bible instruction could be given in public schools subject to certain guidelines. Since then, the county Board of Education has administered it with standard curriculum that includes teaching creationism.
Attorney Marcus Schneider, who filed the suit this week, said Friday he wasn't immediately aware of similar classes in other West Virginia counties. He said the irony is that there will be criticism of the suit for defending the same First Amendment principle that protects the religious freedom of Christians.
The foundation currently has a dozen lawsuits in other states over issues such as prayer in school, and won a somewhat similar suit about Bible classes filed in 2002 against one Tennessee county's schools, staff attorney Patrick Eliot said. "Something like this is extremely rare. It's not something most school districts do," he said.
Teresa Russell, an administrator for Mercer County Public Schools, said the Bible courses are voluntary and they haven't yet been officially notified about the suit. Data showing the number of schools and students participating hasn't yet been calculated for this year, she said.
"I can verify that we do have a Bible in the Schools program. I can verify that we do supervise that particular program," Russell said. "It is an elective course that students opt to take."
West Virginia's county school systems can establish the electives they choose, and Mercer County created this one, according to the state Department of Education.
"For that reason, we do not know if any other school or county offers a course similar to the Mercer County course because it is a local decision," spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said.