A three judge panel may have put a dagger through the heart of a West Virginia public school district's eighty year old Bible study program. In reversing the lower court's ruling, the Fourth Circuit panel ruled that a public school district's Bible In The School (BITS) program violated separation of Church and State laws, and issued an injunction, effective immediately.
BITS Was the Pits for Agnostic Family
The suit was filed by an agnostic parent and her daughter, and joined by public interest group, Freedom From Religion Foundation. Elizabeth Deal, the agnostic parent, refused to give permission for her daughter, Jessica, to attend the BITS program as a first grader at Memorial Primary School, in Mercer County West Virginia.
The program met once per week for 45 minutes. What upset Deal was that the school failed to offer any alternative instruction. Worse yet, the school made Jessica sit in a coatroom at the back of of the BITS class. Subsequently, the school removed Jessica to a sequestered area of the library and a computer lab, among other locations. Deal states her daughter felt bullied by her fellow students for not attending BITS, and by fourth grade, Jessica felt little choice but to enroll in a neighboring district. Deal filed suit, and the district placed the BITS program on suspension.
Issue Isn't Moot Just Because School Voluntarily Suspended BITS Program
A federal judge then ruled that Deal's lawsuit was moot because the suspension was in place and Jessica was at a different school. But Deal and her attorneys disagreed. At any time, the district could remove the voluntary suspension, and resume the BITS program. Also, it just didn't seem fair that Jessica had to attend a different school district when she felt she had constitutional rights to protect. And the Fourth Circuit agreed with plaintiffs. "Indeed, the county has characterized the (BITS) suspension as part of a regular review process, a dubious suggestion in view of the program's uninterrupted, decades-long history," the ruling states.
The judges found no evidence "that the suspended version of the BITS program will not return in identical or materially indistinguishable form." The panel felt not only that the issue wasn't moot, but that Jessica indeed had standing to sue, given that she had sustained injury feeling marginalized and forced to attend a nearby district. "Applied here, the 'opportunity' to return Jessica to her home district, in addition to alleviating appellants' ongoing feelings of marginalization, is surely a 'tangible benefit' sufficient to confer standing," the ruling states.
If you feel that your constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion, or freedom from religion, is being violated, contact a local civil rights attorney. The practice of religion in a public school is a very delicate topic, with both sides having degrees of freedom to exert. A lawyer can help you understand your rights, and what you can do to protect them.