Board to appeal ruling to end Bible classes in Tennessee

The Associated Press 2/16/02; see update below.

CHATTANOOGA - Rhea County school board members voted unanimously Thursday night to appeal a federal judge's ruling that ordered an end to Bible classes that had been taught for 51 years in the county's public schools. "The judge cited areas we can fix to bring the program within the guidelines of the law; however, these changes would water down the content of the message," board member Bruce Majors told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "We can tell the Bible classes have been taught in county 's schools for 51 years Bible as history or allegory. But what we want is to teach our children that the Bible is the truth. Our only course is an appeal."

About 300 residents attended the meeting at Rhea Central Elementary School to hear the boards decision following last Friday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Allan Edgar. He said the classes violate the First Amendment because school officials acted with both purpose and effect to endorse and advance religion in the public schools." "It has never been held that there is a ban on all religious activity in public schools," the judge wrote.

"For example, a student may voluntarily pray at school. Also, religious organizations may use public school facilities under some circumstances." But the government, he wrote, "may not teach, or allow the teaching of a distinct religious viewpoint." A couple with two children attending the schools had challenged the Bible classes. Their identities have not been disclosed. A branch of the Freedom From Religion Foundation a nonprofit First Amendment advocacy organization, was also a plaintiff.

The 30-minute classes were taught by students from Bryan College, a private Christian college in Dayton. They were held weekly for about 800 kindergarten through fifth-grade students in the county's three elementary schools. Parental consent was not required and students were allowed to participate in alternative activities if they objected to the classes.

Rhea County school Superintendent Sue Porter said she wanted a trial to show that the classes include "character education But the plaintiffs asked the judge for a ruling before the scheduled Feb. 19 trial and Edgar granted the request. While most in 'attendance Thursday night supported the boards decision, there were some who didn't. "I don't think it is the job of public schools to teach religion. said resident Barrett Bishop.

Deep attachment to religion has gotten attention before in Dayton, a rural town about 40 miles north of Chattanooga.

Update 2008

Attorney General OKs Bible Classes In Public Schools. Study of book's impact is OK; sermons are not.

The Tennessean April 3, 2008

Tennessee's public school students are legally safe to learn about the Bible's impact on literature, art and politics so long as the lessons aren't sermons, a new opinion from the state's Attorney General says. The judgment, released Tuesday, also declares that a pending legislative bill that would authorize the state to create a nonsectarian Bible elective curriculum passes constitutional muster.

A handful of Tennessee school districts already know that. At least four, including Wilson County, offer such a class approved by the state Department of Education as a special course that counts as a social studies or literature elective.

Still, bill sponsor Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, said he requested a legal opinion to send a clear message that an academic, nonreligious Bible class has a place in public classrooms. "It was not out of my doubt in its constitutionality; it was out of a commitment to making it certain that none can deny its constitutionality," Herron said. "There are school systems all over the state that are afraid to offer on their own a course about the Bible; they're afraid of being sued and they don't have adequate guidance to go forward."

If Herron's bill passes, the state Department of Education will assign a specialist to work on developing the curriculum, department's spokeswoman Rachel Woods said. Tennessee school districts that offer Bible electives now choose their own curricula, she said. Wilson County started offering the class this school year, and more than 200 juniors and seniors signed up for it in the first semester. Their teachers and principals went through First Amendment training. Scores of parents urged the county school board last year to adopt the class and roll it out to all four high schools...

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