(RNS) A dark chapter in our public schools’ tumultuous history with religion is repeating itself in Mercer County, W.Va.
A mother, who is an atheist, is fighting to stop her school system’s weekly, overtly religious Christian Bible classes so her child, a kindergartner, will not be ostracized for opting out when she will be required to take them next year in first grade.
I hope she wins. Legally, the federal civil suit the mother and the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation recently filed against Mercer County schools is clear-cut. It is unconstitutional to preach the Bible to students in school. Not only are these classes unconstitutional, they’re counterfactual; the Bible in the Schools course includes a lesson on creationism asking students to imagine that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time, defying common sense and contradicting widely accepted scientific proof that this is untrue.
But there’s another pressing reason to keep these classes out of public schools: to prevent ostracizing of religious minorities and atheists. The mother in fact used pseudonyms for herself and her child in the lawsuit because she feared the girl would be picked on. Though she has the right to opt her child out, it will set her apart. I know that from personal experience.
My family moved to northwest Ohio in 1974, when I was in the middle of fourth grade. The elementary school I started attending still conducted religious education classes even though it was roughly a quarter century after the Supreme Court’s seminal ruling in McCollum v. Board of Education.
In its 8-1 decision, the court ruled that holding weekly religious education inside public schools was unconstitutional after Vashti McCollum, an atheist, had sued Champaign, Ill., public schools on behalf of her three sons.
Because one of her sons did not attend religious education classes, he was often teased at school and beaten up on the way home, a fact that influenced the judges’ decision.
During my first week in my new school in northwest Ohio, a woman paid by local churches came into my classroom and began teaching Bible stories about Jesus and leading us in Christian hymns. My parents complained and I was excused from the weekly classes and banished to the library.
My peers noticed my absence, and some questioned why I left. “I’m Jewish,” I said. They asked if I believed in Jesus. I said no. “You’re going to hell,” they said. For the first time in my life, I felt different and embarrassed because I was a Jew.
My parents could have sued to stop the classes — and hopefully the teasing from peers, but they never did out of fear of making us stand out even more. After another family threatened to sue, the school finally eliminated the classes in the 1980s, almost 30 years after the nation’s highest court had outlawed them.
At least 250,000 students still participate in Bible classes during the school day in various states, according to Released Time Education, a Christian organization that runs such programs. Those numbers would not include similar programs run by Mormon organizations in Utah. Most organizations, though, run the classes in a nearby church or nonschool building, following a 1952 Supreme Court ruling in Zorach v. Clauson. Legally, students can be released from school for religious classes, provided the classes are voluntary and run off school grounds.
In 2017, nearly 70 years after the McCollum ruling, Mercer County is unusual because it is running its Bible course inside classrooms. There are no statistics available on how many students opt out of Bible classes, which began in Mercer County in 1939.
A former Mercer County schools parent, Elizabeth Deal, told CBS News on Feb. 8 that she took her daughter out of the school system because of the way her child was treated after choosing not to take the Bible course. Other children told Deal’s daughter that she and her parents were going to hell.
In the 1940s, Jim McCollum, one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that established the law on these classes, recalled a classmate who was outed as Jewish because he opted out of in-school Bible class. The boy was beaten and his glasses were broken.
Schools can and should educate children about the world’s religions or the role the Bible plays in literature and history. Now ought to be a time when schools are focusing on creating understanding of many religions rather than making non-Christians easier targets for bullying.
(Linda K. Wertheimer is a former Boston Globe education editor and author of “Faith Ed., Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance.” Follow her at @lindakwert)