A school district in West Virginia has agreed to pay $225,000 in plaintiff’s costs and attorney fees to end a lawsuit filed by an atheist group over once hosting an elective Bible class.
Mercer County Schools agreed to the settlement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation last week, ending litigation that began in 2017 over its Bible in the Schools program.
"We are pleased that this violation involving the illegal proselytizing of youngsters has come to a mutual resolution," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, as quoted by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. "But it should not take a lawsuit and years of effort to stop blatantly unconstitutional school programs."
The Christian Post reached out to Mercer County Schools for this story. The school district directed CP to a spokesperson who did not return comments by press time.
Known as the Bible in the Schools program, the course was first offered at Bluefield High School in 1939 and then was added to other schools in the county as time passed.
In January 2017, the FFRF filed a lawsuit against Mercer County for the Bible class on behalf of Elizabeth Deal, whose daughter had been reportedly ostracized for refusing to take the course.
"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," read the lawsuit.
"Forcing Jane Doe to choose between putting her child in a Bible study class or subjecting her child to the risk of ostracism by opting out of the program violates the rights of conscience of Jane and Jamie Doe and therefore their First Amendment rights."
U. S. District Court Judge David A. Faber dismissed the lawsuit in November 2017, pointing out that the school was mulling possible revisions to the Bible course curriculum.
"Indeed, whether or not this court were to undergo an (albeit incomplete) factual analysis of the past BITS program, defendants might remain capable of developing, adopting, and teaching a new BITS curriculum in conformity with Establishment Clause jurisprudence," ruled Faber.
"As a result, the clouded future of BITS classes in Mercer County would hang over the heads of the Does regardless of the court's substantive review. Nevertheless ... if BITS returns and it is clear the new BITS program violates constitutional law, this district is more than capable of granting a preliminary injunction."
Faber added that "Supreme Court jurisprudence has by no means established an absolute bar to the Bible being taught and studied in the public school system."
In December 2018, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the earlier ruling and remanded the case back to the lower court.
“In sum, the County has not carried its burden of showing that subsequent events make it ‘absolutely clear’ that the suspended version of the BITS program will not return in identical or materially indistinguishable form,” ruled the panel.
“Appellants’ current claims are therefore not moot. Of course, this does not prevent the district court from addressing mootness in the future if presented with that issue.”
In January 2019, the Mercer County’s board of education passed a resolution that ended the Bible class program rather than simply make revisions.