Backers of Public-School Bible Classes Prepare for Court Battle in Bristol, Va.
About 100 supporters of the "shared time" Bible-study classes in the Bristol, Va., school district gathered in a local ywca last week to launch a fund-raising campaign for expenses incurred in a federal-court challenge to the classes.
The suit, filed Feb. 1 by the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) of Virginia in federal district court in Abingdon, alleges that the classes, which have been held in the district's public schools for 41 years, violate the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment.
Basil Eugene Kistner, chairman of the Bristol Council of Religious Education--the group that sponsors the classes--said the group raised $3,300 at the meeting, discussed the possibility of bringing in a constitutional lawyer to assist the school board's lawyer in defending the classes, and planned an extensive advertising campaign to attract support, using billboards, radio, and television.
Mr. Kistner said the group plans to design one billboard showing a graduation mortarboard with a Bible superimposed over it and under it the caption: "It Should Not Be Expelled."
The meeting also helped confirm what he contends is overwhelming community support for continuing the classes.
The support is not surprising, he said, because 98 percent of the eligible students in the district take part in the classes.
Thus far, both the Bristol chapter of the Virginia Education Association (vea), and the vea itself have declined an invitation to join the aclu in the suit.
In a poll conducted by the Bristol group, 80 percent of the association's 187 members said they did not think the vea should become involved in the suit, said Joyce A. Kistner, president of the Bristol vea and a relative of Eugene Kistner.
The voluntary Bible-study classes are taught in both the Virginia and Tennessee sections of the 50,000-person community of Bristol, but so far the classes have not been challenged in Tennessee.
Fourth and fifth graders who have parental permission participate once a week in the classes, in which teachers hired by the council take the students through a series of non-denominational Bible lessons.
Mr. Kistner said no prayer is allowed in class, although it had been until 18 months ago.
"We stopped the prayer because we want to stay within the bounds of the Constitution," Mr. Kistner said.
He said that the salaries for the two full-time teachers and one part-time teacher who teach the class come from the council, which is made up of interested church groups and individuals.
Named as plaintiffs in the suit are Sam L. and Sally A. Crockett, Bristol parents who have a daughter in the 5th grade.
According to Judy Goldberg of the Virginia aclu, the major precedent in this case is the 1948 case, McCollum v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Illinois school board violated the separation of church and state when it allowed students in grades 4 to 9 to receive religious instruction on campus.
Teachers whose salaries were paid by a group called the Council on Religious Education came to the public schools each week for the classes. The classes contained only students whose parents signed permission slips, and non-participating students were required to go elsewhere in the school building during classes.
In a 1952 case, Zorach v. Clauson, the Court ruled that it was permissible for public-school students to leave school premises during the day to go to a nearby religious center for religious instruction.
However, Mr. Kistner says his group wants to fight for the classes as they exist, and is currently not considering switching to a system like the one found permissible in Zorach.
The suit names the school board, the Bristol Council of Religious Education, the superintendent of schools, and the principal of the school the Crocketts' daughter attends.
Ms. Goldberg said her group is considering filing a similar suit in Shenandoah County.