By Frank S. Ravitch, Professor of Law & Walter H. Stowers Chair of Law and Religion, Michigan State University
A federal lawsuit was filed recently against the Mercer County, West Virginia Board of Education, challenging a Bible program in the elementary schools. The plaintiffs are the Freedom From Religion Foundation and two parents and their children. One parent and both children have kept their names anonymous due to fear of reprisal.
The Bible class was listed as an elective, but almost all students enrolled. The complaint alleges that the few who opted out were harassed and discriminated against. One of the plaintiffs in the case had already suffered harassment.
In my research for the book I wrote in 1999, “School Prayer and Discrimination,” I explored what happens to religious minorities and dissenters when public schools engage in sectarian prayer and Bible reading.
There is a long history of discrimination and even violence linked to Bible reading and school prayer.
What the law says
Students have always been free to pray or read the Bible on their own or with friends during free time at school. In public schools these days, student religious groups have access to school facilities before and after school to the same extent as any other noncurriculum-related student group. Any school that violates these principles would also violate the Constitution.
In contrast, school-endorsed Bible courses that promote a religious perspective have been unconstitutional since a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibited school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts – often supported by state legislatures – to get around the prohibition on Bible reading by offering Bible courses. If offered as electives and taught “objectively,” such classes could be considered constitutional.
What this means is if a public school offers a class that focuses on religion or the Bible, the material would have to be taught without promoting any particular religious position. Those of us in the law and religion field sum it up as, “Teach it, don’t preach it.”
These classes cross the line if they endorse or favor a particular religious view. The Mercer County case will thus examine if the class, as alleged, is overtly sectarian and promoted by the school, and hence unconstitutional.
Significantly, in many such cases where students opt out or dissent, parents have evidence of discrimination and harassment aimed at their children.
In fact, the United States Supreme Court acknowledged the concern about community members and school officials engaging in harassment of dissenters in an important footnote in a recent school prayer decision, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The case challenged the practice of having a student deliver a prayer over the public address system before each home varsity football game.
The United States Supreme Court quoted a lower court order prohibiting any attempt “to ferret out the identities of the plaintiffs in this cause, by means of bogus petitions, questionnaires, individual interrogation, or downright ‘snooping.’” The lower court had said it wanted the “proceedings addressed on their merits, and not on the basis of intimidation or harassment…”
As is evident from the above example, there are good reasons why families are often afraid to challenge these practices and want to remain anonymous, even when they raise the issue.
History of persecution
The history related to school-sponsored or endorsed Bible reading and prayer in the public schools is full of harassment, discrimination and even violence.
It goes back to the early 19th century, when Bible reading and prayer, in what were then known as “common schools” (a precursor to today’s public schools), were used to promote anti-Catholic sentiments. At that time, Catholics were persecuted for refusing to participate in Protestant Bible reading in the common schools.
Nineteenth-century Catholic Canon Law specified that Catholics reading the Bible in English could read only the Douay Bible, which was the English translation approved by the Vatican. Schools, however, often required reading from the King James Bible, which, aside from its controversial history and translation concerns, included a dedicatory preface that referred to the pope as the “man of sin.”
Priests were literally tarred and feathered for encouraging their congregants not to participate in Protestant Bible reading and prayer in schools. Conflict over Catholic objections to Protestant Bible reading and prayer in the common schools was used as an excuse by anti-Catholic individuals, who opposed Irish immigration to the United States, to start riots. Several people were killed during such riots in Philadelphia in 1844.
Such instances continued well into the 20th and 21st century. In 1995, for example, students in a Mississippi elementary school who refused to take part in prayer that violated their family’s Lutheran faith faced serious discrimination. One such student was forced to wear headphones so he could not hear the prayer.
The family finally filed a lawsuit (which they won). However, they received bomb threats and death threats as a result of filing the lawsuit; the harassment of the children got even worse. In other cases children were beaten up for refusing to take part in school-endorsed religious activities in public schools.
And in what is perhaps one of the worst cases in the last half-century, a family in Little Axe, Oklahoma, who belonged to the Church of the Nazarene, a Protestant Christian church, had their house firebombed after they objected to school-supported religious activities favoring a different Protestant sect.
Why it can hurt religion
The truth is, school-sponsored Bible classes and Bible reading don’t hurt only religious minorities and dissenters, they can also hurt religion generally.
As Roger Williams (the founder of the current state of Rhode Island) noted more than 100 years before the founding of the United States, government support and influence can corrupt religion even if it seeks to promote it.
In several of his most famous writings, he wrote about the corrupting effect government can have on religion:
“God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.”
This history shows how such insistence on sectarian Bible teaching could lead a dominant religious group to discriminate and even act violently. From my perspective as a law and religion scholar, these situations do not seem to promote the values of loving one’s neighbor and protecting those in harms way that a number of religions, including Christianity, espouse.