Almost heaven, West Virginia: How to cover dispute over Bible classes in public schools the right way

Almost heaven, West Virginia ...

I won't say the Washington Post's front-page story today on a lawsuit over a Bible elective in a West Virginia public school district is "almost heaven," but it's pretty good.

Excellent, actually:

Three months ago, I highlighted an Associated Press story on the same federal lawsuit at the heart of the Post's report:

In my earlier post, I said:

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.

After supplying a bit more commentary and explanation, I concluded:

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.

Which leads us back to today's Post story, which, by the way, tops 2,000 words.

In an era of fake news and advocacy reporting, this is a good, old-fashioned piece of journalism that gives both sides an ample opportunity to explain their position. And it answers those questions that AP left hanging. (As a former AP newsman, let me just acknowledge that I understand fully the challenges facing wire service reporters, and I recognize the difference between a quick-hit lawsuit suit and an in-depth takeout published weeks after the original AP report.)

But back to today's story: In my previous post, I suggested interviewing students, parents and teachers. The Post — which doesn't always rush to follow my directions — does just that, opening its piece with a family supportive of the school district's Bible elective:

PRINCETON, W.Va. — Gym is Trenton Tolliver’s favorite class. But the 7-year-old is also a huge fan of the weekly Bible course at Princeton Primary, his public elementary school. He gets to play matching games about Bible stories and listen to classic tales. Noah and the Ark is a favorite. Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden, of course. And the story about how their son Cain killed his brother, Abel.
“That one was a little bit of a surprise,” Trenton said as he sat with his parents, Brett and Courtney Tolliver, one day this month watching his little sister’s soccer practice on a lush field in this small town in the mountains of southern West Virginia.
This spring, Bible classes such as Trenton’s are on the minds of many here in Mercer County. For decades, the county’s public schools have offered a weekly Bible class during the school day — 30 minutes at the elementary level and 45 minutes in middle school. Bible classes on school time are a rarity in public education, but here they are a long-standing tradition. The program is not mandatory, but almost every child in the district attends. And there is widespread support for the classes: Parents and community members help raise nearly $500,000 a year to pay for the Bible in the Schools program.
Now Bible in the Schools is facing a stiff legal challenge. Two county residents with school-age children argue in a lawsuit that the program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the West Virginia constitution. Filed in January and amended last month by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the suit charges that the Bible class “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 Post also quotes from the curriculum and talks to church-state experts, including the highly regarded Charles Haynes. And yes, attorneys from both sides are reflected.

A time or two — such as when the Post writes that "God is a big deal in Mercer County" — I wondered if the paper's Beltway worldview might be influencing its characterization of the dispute:

You can find the Church of God here. And the Church of Christ. And the Church of Jesus. There are a couple of Catholic churches, a synagogue and a mosque, but the vast majority of houses of worship are Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal. The radio in the region is filled with gospel stations, Bible talk shows and Christian rock. Billboards tout the Ten Commandments or offer stern messages on abortion and eternal salvation. Beneath a Chick-fil-A billboard in Princeton, another asks: “If you die tonight. Heaven or Hell?”

Honest question: Has anybody ever heard of the "Church of Jesus?" Is there any chance the writer meant the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? I Googled for Mercer County churches and didn't see a "Church of Jesus." Can anybody help me out here? I'm mainly curious.

Overall, the Post story lacks the kind of snark or "visit-to-the-zoo" feeling that sometimes afflicts elite media coverage of the Bible Belt.

A final question: Based on the Post report, is the district's Bible elective likely to withstand a court challenge?

The schools' own attorney seems to acknowledge that — in its present form — the program has legal concerns:

Representing the Mercer school district is the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm based in Texas that specializes in religious freedom cases. Hiram Sasser, a lawyer at the firm, said the district’s main objective is to allow the Bible course to remain as an elective while making sure it complies with the law. The district filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Wednesday.
“There are two things to look at,” Sasser said. “The first is whether you can have a Bible course at all. And the other is whether you can have the Bible course as it is presently constituted. It’s fair to say that we’re very confident on the first issue. And on the second issue . . . our client is very, very flexible in terms of making sure that the content is in compliance with the law.”
But the plaintiffs aren’t looking for flexibility. They want the Bible class out of the school day.

Go ahead and read it all.

Almost heaven, West Virginia ...


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