Are Bible classes in public schools constitutional? The answer is complicated

I don't have a real problem with The Associated Press' coverage of a religion-related federal lawsuit filed against a West Virginia school district.

I mean, it's a threadbare account — roughly 400 words — but that's typical of AP news these days. At least this one makes an attempt to present both sides. 

However, the story does — IMHO — raise more questions than it answers. I'll elaborate below.

First, though, here's the lede:

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.

GetReligion readers are, of course, familiar with the agenda of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It's no surprise at all that the organization has an issue with teaching the Bible in public schools.

But does that make the courses unconstitutional? Not necessarily.

To answer that complicated question, readers would need a whole lot more details about the specific circumstances than the AP story provides.

I first encountered the question 20 years ago when covering education for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City's major daily. I wrote a front-page story way back in 1997 that noted:

(A)ccording to Vanderbilt University’s Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, the U.S. Supreme Court “has indicated many times that teaching about religion, as distinguished from religious indoctrination, is an important part of a complete education.
“The public school’s approach to religion in the curriculum must be academic, not devotional,” the Vanderbilt center states in a pamphlet.
Jim Huff, Oklahoma president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Tuesday public schools can – and should – teach about religion.
Huff taught Bible and religion history in Oklahoma City schools for more than a decade before the district abandoned those electives in the early 1980s.
“Students ran the full spectrum of religious conviction, from Catholic to various Protestant churches to students of no faith,” Huff said. “It was just a very good subject for students to become aware of the characters and events of the Bible.
“It was not my job to teach the doctrinal meaning of those characters and events. That was something left up to the home and the local faith groups.”

More recently, I covered "released time" Bible instruction of South Carolina public school students for The Christian Chronicle.

To understand what's really happening in the West Virginia school district — and the constitutionality of it or not — AP or another news organization would need to do much more reporting: Interview students, parents and teachers. Review the curriculum. Talk to church-and-state experts. Study past U.S. Supreme Court decisions on religion in public schools.

Of course, reporting all of the above would require more than 400 words.

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