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Freedom of Religion - Part 1

A federal court in Arkansas outlawed Bible classes that had been taught in a city's public schools for 51 years. The schools gave elementary grade children the opportunity to learn about the Bible. Bible classes were taught during regular school hours in the school building, by volunteers not acting on behalf of any church. No course credit was given for the classes, and attendance was voluntary. Nearly 96% of all students attended the Bible classes. The parents of one child filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the program violated the first amendment's "nonestablishment of religion" clause. The court began its opinion by observing that, according to Supreme Court pronouncements, "any government involvement with religion, to be constitutional, must have a secular purpose, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and it must not foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion." A state practice that violates any of these requirements is invalid. The court concluded that the Bible study program violated all three requirements. It referred to lessons and songs that endorsed Christian dogma, and quoted one of the Bible teachers who stated in class that "Jesus is our gateway to Heaven. He laid down his life for us so that we could go to Heaven. He is our shepherd and he wants us all to be one big flock of sheep." Such evidence, the court concluded, clearly demonstrated that the program had a religious purpose, and that it advanced religion. The court acknowledged that purely "secular" Bible study programs in public schools have been upheld as lawful by other federal courts, and it indicated a willingness to review a modified Bible study program in this case. It noted that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that "Bible study, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may … be effected consistently with the first amendment." Doe v. Human, 725 F. Supp. 1503 (W.D. Ark. 1989).

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  • May 1, 1990