Given their recent successes in the courts in getting ceremonial prayer allowed at town council and school board meetings, we see that religious people have been emboldened to try things that have already been deemed unconstitutional, such as Bible classes in schools. In 1948, Vashti McCollum fought her local school district in Illinois when it required her young son Jim to attend Bible classes in school during regular school hours. The teachers would try to pressure the young child to attend the classes despite the wishes of his freethinking parents.
To avoid the classes, he had to leave the room and sit in the hallway and being made conspicuous in this way resulted in him feeling like an outsider and he was taunted and bullied by other students. In the celebrated case of McCollum v. Board of Education of School District, the US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that allowing school premises to be used for religious instruction during school hours was unconstitutional. This case made for a gripping documentary The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today.
Linda K. Wertheimer describes how a school district in West Virginia is now doing exactly that same thing, and another mother has risen up to challenge what is a clear violation of that earlier ruling. The school district is being sued by her, aided by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
A dark chapter in our public schools’ tumultuous history with religion is repeating itself in Mercer County, W.Va.
A mother, who is an atheist, is fighting to stop her school system’s weekly, overtly religious Christian Bible classes so her child, a kindergartner, will not be ostracized for opting out when she will be required to take them next year in first grade.
I hope she wins. Legally, the federal civil suit the mother and the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation recently filed against Mercer County schools is clear-cut. It is unconstitutional to preach the Bible to students in school. Not only are these classes unconstitutional, they’re counterfactual; the Bible in the Schools course includes a lesson on creationism asking students to imagine that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time, defying common sense and contradicting widely accepted scientific proof that this is untrue.
Wertheimer has a personal story for why this kind of thing is bad and her story has echoes of what Jim McCollum experienced back in 1948.
During my first week in my new school in northwest Ohio, a woman paid by local churches came into my classroom and began teaching Bible stories about Jesus and leading us in Christian hymns. My parents complained and I was excused from the weekly classes and banished to the library.
My peers noticed my absence, and some questioned why I left. “I’m Jewish,” I said. They asked if I believed in Jesus. I said no. “You’re going to hell,” they said. For the first time in my life, I felt different and embarrassed because I was a Jew.
A former Mercer County schools parent, Elizabeth Deal, told CBS News on Feb. 8 that she took her daughter out of the school system because of the way her child was treated after choosing not to take the Bible course. Other children told Deal’s daughter that she and her parents were going to hell.
In the 1940s, Jim McCollum, one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that established the law on these classes, recalled a classmate who was outed as Jewish because he opted out of in-school Bible class. The boy was beaten and his glasses were broken.
Incidentally, Jim has been a long-time active member of the FFRF, the body currently suing the Mercer County schools.