By CHARLIE BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
PRINCETON, W.Va. — The Bible in the Schools program for Mercer County elementary students has been suspended for next year, but the head of the organization said it’s not gone.
Wayne Pelts of Bluefield, who has been chairman of the Mercer County Bible in the Schools program for about 20 years, said the group is “confident that the program will be back in 2018 stronger than it has ever been.”
“May I strongly emphasize, the Bible program is not ending,” he said. “This is a transition year. Curriculum review will begin very soon. Every plan is to be back in the schools for the 2018-2019 school year.”
On Tuesday night, the board of education voted to suspend the program next year at the recommendation of Dr. Deborah Akers, superintendent of schools.
“Since the Bible class is an elective, I would like to include community members and religious leaders along with our teachers in this process,” Akers told the board. “In order to conduct a thorough review, we need to allow at least a year to complete the task. Therefore, I am recommending that we suspend the elementary Bible classes until this review is completed.”
The program, which is taught in 15 elementary schools and three middle schools in the county, is the subject of a lawsuit filed in January that contends the program “endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students.”
The suit also says the Bible classes that are taught, which are optional, are basically “Sunday school” classes, which, the suit says, are illegal. Another part of the suit addresses the issue of students who do not opt to take the classes facing ostracism.
Although Mercer County schools administers the program, Pelts’ group raises money to pay the seven teachers, who will now be out of their jobs at least for next year.
“Right now, the loss of jobs for our teachers is heartbreaking,” said Pelts. “Our primary and immediate emphasis is to honor and show appreciation to our Bible teachers.”
The group raises almost $500,000 a year to pay for the program.
“We are so grateful for the decades of financial commitment and generosity to the Bible In The Schools program,” Pelts said, adding that 4,291 students were enrolled in the elective this year.
“There is really no way to add up the number of students who have been enrolled in Bible classes here – hundreds of thousands, and the financial support – which totals in the millions of dollars,” he said. “Since 1939, Mercer County students have benefited from an elective that serves to ‘Communicate Ancient Wisdom to Modern Times,’ and we look forward to the Bible program continuing with the same high percentages of enrollment and the same financial support from the community.”
For Jonathan Rockness, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bluefield, the loss of jobs hurts and he doesn’t agree that classes are like “Sunday school” lessons.
“As a parent of children who attend both the elective Bible class and Sunday school, I can say there is a big difference between the two,” he said. “In the elective Bible class, they are simply given some basic knowledge of the Bible as a historical document and a collection of literature.”
That basic knowledge includes learning what the 66 books of the Bible are, reading its “timeless stories,” and study the content as they would classical literature, he said.
“They are not taught that the Bible makes any kind of claim on their lives,” he said. “On the other hand, in Sunday school, they are taught that the Bible’s stories and teachings are beliefs to live by. They are taught that this is the inspired Word of God that makes a claim on what they should believe and how they should live. Anyone protesting that the elective Bible class is akin to Sunday school probably hasn’t spent much time in Sunday school.”
Rockness said all children should be taught the “timeless works of literature” and many of the best works are in the Bible.
“I remember learning the about the ‘five pillars of Islam’ in grade school – does that mean I was indoctrinated into Islam?” he said. “Of course not – I just gained some knowledge and understanding about the world around me. Our children should be taught all there is to learn in literature, and that includes such classics as David and Goliath, Noah’s Ark, and the timeless brilliance of the New Testament parables.”
Rockness there is “great richness to explore in the Bible as a document, and this is easily done without any efforts to indoctrinate children.”
Those who work on the program take “great pains to present the Bible as a historical piece of literature that has much to offer, while at the same time being careful to respect the line between teaching knowledge vs. teaching a belief system,” he said.
Rockness is also concerned about the loss of jobs.
“Lost in all of this is the fact that many great teachers and fine people are now losing their jobs,” he said. “We talk all the time about our need for local jobs, and yet here we are driving away hard-working, tax-paying, decent members of our community … all in protest of a program that is entirely elective and completely self-funded.”
One of the teachers who is losing his job is Charles Scruggs, who has been teaching in the Bible in the Schools program for 13 years.
He has no hesitation in saying he thinks the program is legal.
Scruggs said teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and be certified by taking a minimum number of Bible-related courses.
“Bible teachers are not allowed to teach personal or religious applications in any Bible lessons,” he said. “It is stressed over and over again not to say anything related to a personal application.”
Scruggs said teachers can also not answer any questions related to personal applications and instruct students to ask their parents instead.
Mercer County schools has filed a motion to dismiss the suit in Federal District Court in Bluefield. The hearing on that motion is set for June 19 in Beckley.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based firm, filed the suit and asks that the current Bible in the Schools program end.
Patrick Elliot, an attorney for the foundation, said the amended lawsuit does seek to end the program.
“We see no way the program can meet the guidelines” that would make it constitutional, he said, regardless of any changes that may be made in lesson plans.
Earlier this month, the board approved “The Bible and Its Influence” class to be offered next school year to high school students as an elective that will count toward graduation.
It’s a course that has been widely accepted across the nation and meets all legal guidelines, the school system says.
That course will be offered by the school system and not be funded by an outside source.
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