Federal Judges Rule Against Teaching Bible Class in Public Schools

( [email protected] ) Jun 18, 2004 02:44 PM EDT

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A federal appeals court upheld a ruling which banned 50 years of teaching Bible classes in the public schools of Rhea County, Tennessee, June 7, where the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” took place.

After a couple with two children attending the schools filed lawsuit over the classes, in February 2002, a three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio upheld ruling that the Bible Education Ministry program violated the separation of church and state. They said although school officials contended that the classes were value-driven, teaching responsibility and positive morals, teachers were “also teaching the Bible as religious truth.”

Referring to one lesson, which was directed to “teach them (students) how God gives us the best and leads us where He wants us to go,” the judges responded, “Such statements cannot be described as having a secular purpose.”

Before the ruling, the Bible classes, taught by students from Bryan College a Christian college in Dayton, were held for 30 minutes weekly for about 800 students in kindergarten through fifth grade at the county’s three elementary schools. Parental consent was not required but students were allowed to participate in alternative activities if they objected to the classes.

Rhea County superintendent Sue Porter expressed disappointment over the ruling and at the same time was concerned of legal costs but she said local churches are willing to help with the costs.

“I’m disappointed, not surprised though,” Porter said.

On the other hand, chief counsel of a pro-family group, agreed with the ruling, which banned teaching Bible classes.

Steve Crampton, chief counsel of American Family Association Center for Law and Policy, a Christian-based law firm, said teaching Biblical values are noble thing but yet inappropriate in the setting of U.S. public schools.

"When you invite a plainly religious Sunday school lesson into the public schools, we should not be surprised when it is stricken under the Establishment Clause as courts understand it today," Crampton said.

Crampton said the Bible classes in the Rhea County program clearly violated "the lemon test," which determines when government actions have the effect of establishing religion. However, he presented how the county's public schools should offer Bible classes in order not to violate the Establishment Clause.

Crampton suggested that the district should be using certified teachers, rather than local Christian college students, to present the classes; and those teachers must be careful to observe legal guidelines in the way they present the lessons.

"You can't indoctrinate the kids," Crampton said, "You can't teach explicitly that, for instance, all of God's Ten Commandments must be obeyed and that God's word is inerrant here; but you can introduce them to the Bible stories and discuss the lessons that scripture teaches without violating that rule against indoctrination."

However recently in Mississippi, a class titled “The Bible in History And Literature,” which was endorsed by the American Family Law Association, has been approved to be added to school curriculum. The class was presented to the Lincoln County School District Board of Trustees, June 6, by Lesa Harrison Baker of the National Council Bible Curriculum in Public School. The board will vote on whether to add the class once the director makes a recommendation.

According to Baker, the class does not teach students what to believe, but teaches history as it is found in the King James version.

"The teacher cannot tell them what to believe," Baker said. "Students would be referred to their pastors or preachers for those type of questions."

"This class goes to morality and values and can expose some kids to things they may not be getting at home," Baker added

Superintendent Terry Brister explained that the board should not feel pressured to reject the course simply because it has the Bible in its name.

"I would not stay away from this because it has the Bible in its name," Brister said. "This country was built on those principles. Some of us need to start standing up for what we believe.”