Court Refuses To Dismiss Suit Against Bible-Study in School

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A U.S. District Judge in Abingdon, Va., has refused to dismiss a court challenge to the Bible-study classes that have taken place for 41 years in the Bristol school district.

The judge's ruling is among a number of recent developments involving church-state issues in education across the country.

The Virginia suit was filed in February by the state's American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) chapter. The group is charging that the classes, in which 4th and 5th graders participate in a series of nondenominational Bible lessons on school property, violate the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment.

The aclu brought the suit on behalf of Sam L. and Sally A. Crockett, Bristol parents with a 5th-grade daughter in the public schools.

The school board asked that the suit be dismissed on the grounds that the parents did not have a right to be named as plaintiffs because they were not damaged, according to Thomas Chan Kendrick, director of the aclu of Virginia. The board contended that the Crockett's daughter should have been named in the suit.

Judge Glen Williams dismissed this reasoning, Mr. Kendrick said.

The judge said, however, that the Crocketts may not have the right to sue the private religious group that sponsors the classes--the Bristol Council of Religious Education--and added that he may remove them from the case at an April 5 meeting between the program's sponsors and the Crocketts.

That group has been raising funds to fight for the religion classes.

Mr. Kendrick said the aclu has challenged 10 districts over their religious-study programs on school property in the past 18 months, and eight have stopped permitting the programs on school property during school hours.

The Shenandoah County district, for example, began on March 15 to teach students religion in private buses off school property. The aclu had given the district a March 17 deadline to take the classes off school grounds, Mr. Kendrick said.

Mr. Kendrick said his group has not set a deadline for one other district, the Pulaski County schools. "They've said they'll continue the program next year and will probably take it off school grounds," he said. "They are awaiting the Bristol decision, which should come this summer."

Developments elsewhere involving religion and schools include these:

A decision was handed down on March 11 in a federal-court trial over prayer sessions in Little Axe, Okla., a rural district southeast of Oklahoma City.

Judge Ralph G. Thompson ruled that the weekly prayer sessions held before regular school hours were unconstitutional in their present form, according to Mike C. Salem, who represented the plaintiffs who challenged the sessions.

However, "the judge said he didn't see why the sessions couldn't be held after school," Mr. Salem said.

Oklahoma has a state law allowing voluntary prayer at the discretion of local school boards.

The judge said this law did not in-fluence the school board when it drafted its policy, and he did not address its constitutionality in his decision, according to a court clerk.

State representative William D. Graves, the legislator who introduced the state's voluntary-prayer law and defended the Little Axe district, said a decision on whether to appeal will be made this week.

A Tennessee bill requiring public-school classes to begin each day with a minute of silence became law last week.

In Tennessee, if the governor does not veto a bill within 10 days after he receives it, it becomes law.

A spokesman for Gov. Lamar Alexander said the Governor sometimes chooses not to sign bills when he disagrees with them in cases in which "the disagreement is not strong enough for a veto."

Kathryn L. Hearne, executive director of the aclu of Tennessee, said of the law: "The strongest feeling right now is that we will not sue the law on its face at this time."

Minute of Silence

A 1982 law requiring a minute of silence for purposes of meditation or prayer was declared unconstitutional last October by a U.S. District Court judge. The new law does not mention prayer.

Oral arguments in the appeal of the Alabama school-prayer case were heard last week before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

An injunction against prayer in the state's schools--issued by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.--is in effect until the appeals-court review is complete.

U.S. District Judge W. Brevard Hand upheld two laws relating to school prayer in a January decision in which he said the Supreme Court "erred in its reading of history" when it struck down school prayer 21 years ago.

In New Mexico, where a federal-district-court judge ruled in February that a state law allowing a moment of silence in schools was unconstitutional, the state has decided not to appeal the decision, according to a spokesman for the aclu of New Mexico.

In New Jersey, the aclu is mounting a federal-district-court challenge to a law requiring teachers to permit students to observe a one-minute period of silence at the beginning of each school day. A trial is scheduled for May 13.

An Iowa state judge in Floyd County has ordered the Rev. Randy Johnson, principal of the Calvary Baptist Christian Academy, to deliver information about his schools that is required by the state's compulsory-education law.

Iowa law says that once during each school year schools must furnish the names, ages, and attendance records of each child over age 7 and under age 16; the course of study pursued by students; the textbooks used; and the names of teach-ers, according to Floyd County attorney Ronald K. Noah.

The controversy, one of several that have arisen over the issue of state control over private schools in Iowa in recent years, began in the fall of 1980 when the school opened, according to Mr. Noah.

Mr. Johnson said he is not yet sure if he will appeal the decision. He also said, "We've stated that we as a church won't give the information, but we would be willing to have the parents do it."

A bill that would waive some of the state requirements for private schools is not expected to pass, according to a legislative analyst for the state education department.

Last week in Nebraska, two sets of parents who defied a court order by reopening the Faith Christian School in Louisville were found to be in contempt of court. Parents reopened the school--which has also been the focus of a lengthy battle over the issue of state regulation of religiously affiliated private schools--on Feb. 28.

Two men were sentenced to 15 days in jail, and their wives were each fined $5 per day for each day each their children are out of a state-approved school, said Cass County Attorney Ronald D. Moravec.

Four other sets of parents are scheduled for hearings on April 6. The school was open as of last week.

A dispute over the teaching of creationism in the Western school district in Jackson County, Mich., has been resolved.

The board of education there recently decided to drop a three-week curriculum unit called "Controversies in Science," which a state board of education panel had found to have a "bias" toward creationism.

The board rejected the panel's findings but decided to replace the unit nevertheless, according to Howard L. Simon, executive director of the aclu of Michigan.

The aclu first complained to the state attorney general about the course in May 1982.

The group is planning to file suit over the alleged distribution of religious materials dealing with the biblical version of creationism by two 10th-grade biology teachers in Hudsonville, Mr. Simon said.

Also in Michigan, a state affiliate of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is asking the state board of education to halt the distribution of copies of the New Testament and the Book of Psalms to 5th-grade students by members of Gideons International, a religious publishing group.

Rev. Jay A. Wabeke, president of the Grand Rapids chapter of the church-state group, says the Gideons are distributing the books to students in "almost every school district in the state."

The state board of education will probably request an advisory opinion on the matter from the state attorney general during its April meeting, he said.

Vol. 02, Issue 27

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