The chill set in not long after word got out that Elizabeth Deal’s little girl was not taking the Bible class at her West Virginia public grammar school.
Her daughter, Jessica Roe, then a first-grader, felt it first.
When her teacher and the pastor who ran that class realized they didn’t have a permission slip for Jessica Roe to attend, they placed her and another girl who wasn’t enrolled in the county's Bible in the Schools program in a coat closet and gave them iPads “to amuse themselves" during the 30-minute class, Deal said.
In the days and weeks that followed, Jessica Roe brought books from home when she was dispatched to the library or computer lab to sit, mostly by herself, while her classmates were in the Bible program, her mother said.
“My child was offered no alternative education,” said Deal, 42, a granddaughter of two West Virginia coal miners who was raised a Methodist in the Virginia suburbs of Washington and now describes herself as agnostic.
When Jessica Roe was in third grade, the bullying began, Deal charged in a lawsuit she and another family filed in January 2017 against the Mercer County Public Schools, with the help of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state.
“The kids started telling her that she and her family were all going to hell,” Deal said. “One girl saw the Harry Potter book that Jessica Roe was reading and slammed it down on her desk. ‘You don’t need to be reading this witch magic stuff, you should be reading The Bible,’ she yelled.”
In 2016, Deal transferred her daughter to a public school across the state border, in Bluefield, Virginia. After she sued in 2017, Mercer County suspended the class.
“This isn’t about me saying you’re wrong because you’re Christian,” Deal said. “I am for anything that makes someone a better person. … But part of freedom of religion is separating church and state.”
Deal spoke this week after a three-judge panel, in a unanimous decision Monday, concluded that Senior District Judge David Faber of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia made an error when he dismissed Deal’s challenge to the Bible in the Schools program.
In November 2017, Faber ruled that because the district had already suspended the Bible class and one of the children (Jessica Roe) was no longer enrolled in the county schools, the lawsuit was no longer ready to be litigated.
In a 16-page ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit rejected that reasoning. Writing for the trio, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said the parents had challenged the program “as it existed at the time the suit was filed.” The case now goes back to the district court to decide.
The Mercer County Public Schools were represented by the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit Texas law firm “dedicated exclusively to protecting religious liberty for all Americans.”
Asked if they plan to appeal, First Liberty’s deputy general counsel Jeremy Dys sent a statement expressing disappointment in the decision and adding, “We’re considering all our options.”
“Mercer County Schools remains committed to following the law as it provides diverse educational opportunities to its students,” it said.
As for whether the Bible program has been mothballed for good, the statement went on to say that “the program as it existed once is never coming back."
Instead, the school system “has adopted The Bible and Its Influence as an elective in its high schools,” the statement said.
That is the title of a 2005 textbook that is billed as “the only First-Amendment-safe textbook that supports academic study of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.”
Its publisher, The Bible Literacy Project, says it is used in 625 public high schools in 42 states.
In southwestern West Virginia, Mercer County is overwhelmingly white and Christian. It is coal country and Trump country.
Bible classes had been taught in the Mercer County public schools by volunteers for some 75 years when Deal and the other parent, who is unidentified in court papers, sued. But they weren’t the first to raise objections.
In 1985, the parents of eight Mercer County students filed a complaint with the state’s Education Department, according to Deal’s lawsuit. It was not immediately clear what they were objecting to, but a year later the Mercer County Board of Education took over running the program and a corporation was created to fund it for the approximately 4,000 students in the district.
Deal's first brush with the program came when Jessica Roe brought home a permission slip for her parents to sign.
Deal said she conferred with her ex-husband and decided “we wanted our daughter to be able to decide for herself, when she gets older, what religion she wants to follow.”
“But on the permission slip there was no place to check no,” she said. “So we didn’t send the paperwork in.”
In their lawsuit, Deal and the other parent referred to the program as "Bible indoctrination classes” and said the lessons being imparted were “similar to what a child may hear in a church’s Sunday school.”
Deal said that while her daughter was punished by her peers almost right away, “there was no real blowback for me until I joined the lawsuit.”
“It’s not like anybody got in my face or threatened me,” she said. “But there were plenty of comments on the local newspaper Facebook page, things like: I hope Elizabeth Deal can feel the flames of hell licking at her feet.”
Deal said claims by defenders of the program that they were just teaching about the Bible and not proselytizing “are just not true.”
“Lesson 1 instructs students to listen to the directions and warnings that are given in the Bible and to follow them in their own lives,” Deal and the other parent stated in their complaint.
The program also promoted religious beliefs like creationism and incorrect descriptions of history, including the idea that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, the papers state.
“So picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur!” Lesson 2 states, according to the suit. “He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!”
Deal said she is not against religion, and her family celebrates Christmas as a time of giving. "There's just no need to have this in the schools," she said.