ACLU and PFAWF File Lawsuit Against Ector County School Board for Impermissibly Promoting Religion
People For the American Way Foundation, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, and the law firm of Jenner & Block, LLP, filed a federal lawsuit today in the Western District of Texas on behalf of eight parents who say that the Bible course offered in their local high schools violates their religious liberty by promoting particular religious beliefs to children in their community. Some of the parents have children who have graduated from these high schools and some have children who will soon enter them. The case was filed against the Ector County Independent School District Board of Trustees and eight of its members and officials.
“It’s important for students to be educated about religion and the role that people of faith have played in our history, but the Bible course being taught in Odessa gets a grade of F for failing to comply with the Constitution. The course is not designed to teach about religion—it’s designed to promote religion, and a very particular religious viewpoint at that,” said Judith E. Schaeffer, Legal Director of People For the American Way Foundation. “While public schools can teach students about the Bible, the Odessa Bible course presents the Bible to students from a specific sectarian perspective, and that’s a clear violation of the First Amendment.”
In December 2005, the Ector County School Board voted to adopt a Bible course created by a private organization called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS). The elective course, called The Bible in History and Literature, is now taught in two high schools in Odessa, Texas—Permian High School and Odessa High School. Rather than teaching about the Bible objectively, the course promotes religion generally as well as a particular religious viewpoint that is not shared by Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and many Protestants.
“Parents, not public schools, should teach religious beliefs to children,” said Dr. T. Jeremy Gunn, Director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Governments and public schools have no business deciding which religious beliefs are true and then using public schools to proselytize children.”
Doug Hildebrand, one of the parents bringing the lawsuit and an ordained elder and deacon at a local Presbyterian church, said, “Religion is very important in my family and we are very involved in our religious community. But the public schools are no place for religious indoctrination that promotes certain beliefs that not all the kids in the school share. It seems like a church has invaded our school system—and it’s not my church.”
“This class is not about educating students. It is about proselytizing one set of religious beliefs to the exclusion of others,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Students who don’t share those beliefs should not be treated as outsiders by their own schools.”
The Bible course uses the King James Version as its main textbook, which is not the Bible of choice for a wide range of Christian denominations, nor for members of the Jewish faith. It requires students to give “true” or “false” answers to questions that are a matter of religious faith. Although it would be appropriate in Sunday School, the public school course unconstitutionally uses the Bible to instill religious life lessons, having students memorize biblical passages and then discuss how they have affected their lives, the group filing the lawsuits said. The course also presents an unbalanced viewpoint of American history that promotes specific religious beliefs that is in conflict with objective scholarly standards.
“This course is not taught from an objective point of view, as the Constitution requires. There are plenty of ways to constitutionally teach kids about religion and its place in society, history, and literature. But, despite its misleading name, this class doesn’t cut it. It’s basically a Sunday School class within the walls of a public school,” said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director of the ACLU of Texas.
The NCBCPS course has been deeply criticized by Bible scholars for its lack of accuracy, ignorance of scholarly research, and biased promotion of a particular religious interpretation of the Bible. Although the NCBCPS defends its curriculum as being constitutional, its own website reveals a different agenda, urging people to contact NCBCPS as a “first step to get God back in your public school.”
The lawsuit asks that the Ector County School Board be ordered to refrain from teaching the Bible course or any course like it that would unconstitutionally promote religion generally and particular religious beliefs specifically.