Freedom from Religion Foundation

CHARLESTON — A Wisconsin-based organization that basically won a battle to end Mercer County’s Bible in the Schools program is now focusing on legislation passed this session related to teaching a Bible class in the state’s public schools.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent 55 letters to each school district and superintendent in West Virginia telling them House Bill 4780 is a bill “lifted directly from the playbook of Project Blitz, a Christian Nationalist attempt to take over statehouses.”

“Project Blitz starts with small bills that seem ceremonial or innocuous, but it has a single goal: to make Christians a favored class in America, and turn all non-Christians into second-class citizens,” FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel said in a statement. He is a constitutional attorney who drafted the letters. “It’s Christian Nationalism at its worst.”

Project Blitz bible class bills were also proposed in Florida, Missouri, New York and Virginia. All of these measures died or have been indefinitely suspended in those state legislatures due to the coronavirus, the FFRF said.

The bill, which has been signed by Gov. Jim Justice and will go into effect on June 2, allows “county boards of education to offer students in grade nine or above an elective social studies course on Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, New Testament of the Bible, or Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament of the Bible; setting forth the purposes of the course; permitting students to use a translation of their choice; requiring county boards of education to submit to the West Virginia Department of Education the course standards, including the teacher qualifications and required professional development; and imposing requirements applicable to the course, the county board of education, and the State Board of Education.”

The bill also stipulates that the purpose of the course is to “teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding the development of American society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy…”

Any course offered must also follow state and federal law in maintaining religious neutrality, not endorsing a particular religion and must be vetted to make sure it does not violate any provision in the U.S. Constitution.

Mercer County’s Bible in the Schools program had been operating for 75 years when the FFRF challenged it in court in 2017, saying the classes, which were optional, were taught like Sunday school classes and clearly favored one religion.

The lawsuit against the classes was eventually dismissed, except for damages to a parent/plaintiff, since the school system ended the program. The plaintiff’s damages lawsuit is ongoing after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of a Richmond appeals court ruling that allowed that part of the lawsuit to proceed.

A class called “The Bible and Its Influence” is now taught in Mercer County high schools as an elective, but the course teaches the Bible in literary, artistic and historical contexts and the course has been legally vetted.

The danger of the House bill passed this year, the FFRF says, is that safeguards are needed to make sure topics are taught objectively and critically and to make sure teachers don’t turn the classes into something similar to Sunday school.

“Time and again, we see well-meaning courses corrupted by teachers,” said Seidel. “Given that this is part of Project Blitz, a Christian nationalist push to invade our public schools, it cannot be called well-meaning. In practice, bible classes are rarely taught in a legal manner.” 

“The Mercer County, W.Va., lawsuit, which is still ongoing but which forced the local board of education to suspend the 75-year-old class, is particularly instructive for the other districts in the state,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in announcing the opposition to the bill. “If West Virginia school districts aren’t careful, they’ll be inviting similar legal challenges — and losses.” 

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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