FFRF of Georgia

Supreme Court rejects W.Va. school district appeal of FFRF victory

Written on 10/07/2019
Lauryn Seering

1Mercer

The nation’s highest court has sided with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and let stand an important ruling ensuring that parents can bring suit over religious instruction in public schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined today, Oct. 7, to hear a case by a West Virginia school district that sought to overturn a resounding victory for the state/church watchdog and a parent of a public school student. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled last December that Elizabeth Deal, the parent, had standing to challenge bible classes in the Mercer County, W.Va., school system. The Supreme Court formally declined to hear the case by issuing a denial of the school system’s petition for review. 

The Mercer County Schools system had argued before the Supreme Court that Deal’s decision to send her child to a neighboring school system meant that she could no longer challenge the bible classes. Attorneys affiliated with the anti-LGBT legal group First Liberty Institute are representing the school system in the case.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, FFRF attorneys contended that Deal and her daughter could continue to pursue their case against the unconstitutional bible classes. The brief said, “The 4th Circuit’s conclusion — that a mother has standing to challenge a religious program that she is taking ongoing measures to avoid — is consistent with this court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence.” 

FFRF commends the Supreme Court’s move.

“This decision will stand as precedent ensuring that people who are harmed by religious indoctrination in their community can pursue legal action to end those illegal practices,” says FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott.

Bible indoctrination classes were taught in Mercer County Schools for more than 75 years until this lawsuit. The original legal complaint has examples of the blatantly religious curriculum. One lesson promoted creationism by claiming humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Students were asked to “picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!” 

Following the lawsuit, the classes were suspended by the district — a major victory for FFRF. However, the federal court then dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds due to the suspension, even though the bible classes could resume.

Deal filed an appeal before the 4th Circuit. The appellate brief filed by Attorney Marc Schneider and FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott argued that Deal and her daughter could continue to pursue claims against the school district even though her daughter was attending a neighboring school system. 

The 4th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs’ perspective.

“If the district court were to enjoin the county from offering the BITS program to students in the future, Deal would no longer feel compelled to send Jessica to a neighboring school district to avoid what Deal views as state-sponsored religious instruction,” the appeals court stated.

The district court’s decision was reversed and remanded. Now, with the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case, it is proceeding before Judge David Faber in the Southern District of West Virginia.

“The country’s topmost judicial authority has rightly let this decision stand,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There can’t be a bigger boost to our secular Constitution.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the largest freethought association in North America, with 30,000 members all over the United States, including in West Virginia.