The Freedom From Religion Foundation is cautioning a school board in W.Va. about hiring a theocratic organization to litigate on its behalf.
FFRF filed its first lawsuit of the year last month against Mercer County Schools, W.Va. to end egregiously unconstitutional “Bible in the Schools” classes in the county. The high-profile challenge was recently featured on “CBS This Morning.” The Mercer County Board of Education voted this Tuesday to hire the First Liberty Institute as the defending law firm.
In spite of its hyped-up claims, the First Liberty Institute has not fared well when it has tried to represent public schools.
In 2013, FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a lawsuit on the behalf of local plaintiffs to seek removal of a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio. The school district worked with the Liberty Institute, but to no avail. The court ordered the removal of the portrait, and the parties agreed to a financial settlement requiring the school to pay the plaintiffs a combination of damages and legal fees totaling $95,000.
Religious Right legal groups may promise to represent offending school districts free of charge, but taxpayers end up paying costs when the cases are lost.
There is strong likelihood that a similar fate awaits Mercer County. The breach of the First Amendment is obvious in the bible classes.
The curriculum is the equivalent of Sunday school instruction. Goals include developing a “positive attitude” toward biblical literature, “understanding the importance of the Ten Commandments,” and “harmonizing the four gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus.”
The bible instruction, taught by itinerant teachers who possess “a degree in Bible,” begins in first grade. Classes are held in 15 elementary schools, one intermediate school and three middle schools. The classes meet weekly and last 30 minutes in elementary schools and 45 minutes in middle schools.
FFRF has 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. Supreme Court precedent against such instruction dates back to the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education case decided in 1948.
“Mercer County will end up with a losing hand, whomever it hires to defend this indefensible violation,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “A win-win for all of us — including county residents — would be for officials to acknowledge the unconstitutionality of the bible classes and terminate them.”
FFRF v. Mercer County Board of Education was filed on Jan. 18 in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia, with Marc Schneider serving as primary litigating attorney and FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott as co-counsel. Joining FFRF as primary plaintiffs in the case filed were Jane Doe, an atheist and member of FFRF, and her child, Jamie Doe. The defendants are Mercer County Board of Education, Mercer County Schools, and Superintendent Deborah S. Akers.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog organization with more than 26,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including in West Virginia.