Appeal filed in prominent bible-teaching W.Va. case

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A high-profile case involving the teaching of the bible in a West Virginia school district has reached the next stage.

Elizabeth Deal, a parent challenging bible classes in Mercer County, W.Va., filed an appeal before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday, March 5. The appellate brief filed by Attorney Marc Schneider and Freedom From Religion Foundation Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott argues that Deal and her daughter may continue to pursue claims against the school district even though her daughter is now attending a neighboring school system. 

In November, Senior U.S. District Judge David Faber dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, finding that Deal did not have standing.

The appeal demonstrates that persons who are directly affected by the bible classes may challenge them in court. "Deal has standing under the Establishment Clause whether she endures a challenged practice or acts to avoid it," the brief asserts.

The appeal also argues that the suspension of the bible classes this school year by Mercer County does not prevent the court from ruling on the case. The brief states, "Because the evidence fails to clearly show BITS [Bible in the Schools] is gone for good, the case is not moot, and it should be remanded to the district court where it can proceed."

The brief details the misery that Deal and her daughter have undergone due to the bible course.

"Despite Elizabeth's efforts to shield Jessica from the Christian teachings of BITS, Jessica had direct, unwelcome contact with the classes," it recounts. "Once Jessica was able to avoid the classes themselves, her peers began harassing her — going so far as to condemn her family to hell. To get away from BITS, Elizabeth removed Jessica from Mercer Schools and enrolled her in a different district. Through all of this, Elizabeth and Jessica have felt like outsiders in the community where they continue to reside."

Deal discussed her daughter's mistreatment on a "CBS This Morning" news segment highlighting FFRF's case.

"They taunted her about it," she told CBS. "They told her that she was going to hell, that I was going to hell, that her father was going to hell." 

Bible indoctrination classes were taught in Mercer County Schools for more than 75 years until the FFRF lawsuit. FFRF's legal complaint lists examples of the proselytizing curriculum. Lesson 2 promotes creationism by claiming humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Students are asked to "picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn't that be so wild!" 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such instruction unconstitutional in the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education case in 1948. FFRF won a court victory before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ending similar bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton), Tenn., schools in 2004.

The plaintiffs desire a result in their case in line with established precedent.

"Elizabeth and Jessica seek an injunction ending Mercer County Parties' open endorsement of Christianity through BITS and nominal damages to vindicate the constitutional violations already visited upon them," the brief says.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation hopes that this will indeed be the outcome.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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