Federal Judge Sets Restrictions On Public-School Bible Classes
The school board in Bristol, Va., was scheduled this week to take action to bring the district's Bible classes into line with the guidelines of a recent federal-court decision, which found that the classes have been operated in an unconstitutional manner for 42 years.
U.S. District Judge Jackson L. Kiser of the Western District of Virginia ruled late last month that the Bible classes at Washington and Lee Elementary School violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but that the school could offer a revised version of the class.
"Nothing short of a clean break from the past can dispel the religious nature of the program," Judge Kiser stated in the opinion that halted the 4th- and 5th-grade classes.
The program was operated in the southwestern Virginia district and in neighboring Bristol, Tenn., by Bible Teaching in the Public Schools, a private religious organization. The Tennessee district, however, is not bound by the order because it is outside Judge Kiser's jurisdiction.
No Formal Action
The superintendents and board members from both districts met last week to discuss possible responses to the court decision, but took no formal action.
Ralph W. Dillow Jr., who recently stepped down from the Bristol, Va., school board and was one of the defendants in the suit, said board members favored revamping the course rather than scrapping it entirely.
Royce W. Quarles, superintendent of the Virginia district, said following Judge Kiser's guidelines "would make our program acceptable to any court in the country." He said the district "certainly" could meet the requirements by the start of the next school year.
Judge Kiser ruled that the district may resume the classes only if the school board assumes full control of the classes, if teachers of the classes meet state certification standards, if students are not required to take the course, and if teachers do not make any attempt to indoctrinate students about the truth or falsity of biblical materials.
The case was brought last February by Sam L. Crockett and Sally A. Crockett. The Crocketts contended that their daughter, Kathleen, a 4th-grade student, was "humiliated" and pressured into taking the course. The alternatives offered by the school, Ms. Crockett said, amounted to "punishment."
Ms. Crockett said she enrolled Kathleen in the 4th-grade Bible class in 1981 only under pressure from the teacher. She contended that "most children" did not wish to take the course. All but 18 of the system's 589 4th- and 5th-grade students elected to take the course, according to testimony.
On "several occasions," Ms. Crockett said, the teachers advocated religious doctrines that were contrary to her family's beliefs. "It made me angry to have to undo what was taught in the class," she said.
The judge found that "there exists a certain amount of pressure on the student ... to enroll in the Bible class." But, after viewing videotapes of two classes, he also concluded that the teachers presented the material objectively and did not attempt to indoctrinate the students.
Ms. Crockett, who with her husband teaches Sunday-school classes at a Methodist church, said the classes were "wonderful" as religious exercises but did not belong in a public school.
That the program was operated by a private religious organization was its "principal vice," Judge Kiser said.
"One would be hard-pressed," the judge wrote, "to find that a program that has been in place for 40 years under the sponsorship of Protestant churches which prescribed the curriculum, selected, supervised and paid the teachers, included prayers and hymns in the classes, and which has not been subject to the control and supervision of secular authority can be an objective academic course of the Bible study."'
The judge left no doubt that he considered the Bible a proper subject for study in a public school.
Although "the Bible's greatest value is as a religious book," Judge Kiser stated, "... one cannot truly appreciate" history, literature, or the arts without some understanding of the Bible.
He also held that to ignore the Bible's place in history would be to establish a "religion of secularism" that would be as much of a violation of the Establishment Clause as promotion of a particular religion.
Citing the testimony of Allene Phy, an education expert subpoenaed by the defense, the judge also dismissed the plaintiffs' claim that 4th- and 5th-grade students do not have the cognitive ability to distin-guish between the Bible's religious messages and its value as a historical document.
Judge Kiser also held that the classes must be elective, even though Supreme Court decisions have held that properly developed classes may be required. Students' rights would be violated if they could not be excused on religious grounds, he said.
"[A] flag salute and ceremony and military conscription are not per se religious exercises, yet the Court held that requiring someone who is conscientiously opposed due to sincere religious beliefs violates the Free Exercise Clause," he wrote.
Albert J. Menendez, director of research at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the decision was a "small victory," but that the judge should monitor compliance. He said he doubts whether teachers can meet the certification standards by this fall.
The four-day trial took place in June. The judge ordered the defendants to pay the Crocketts' court costs.