Friday, February 10, 2017

Debate over Religion Classes in Public Schools

Mercer County Bible class
Here we go again.  Parents in a West Virginia county are fighting to keep a Bible class in their 19 elementary schools.  Others are trying to halt the classes, which are taught by volunteers and been in place for almost 80 years. An estimated 96 percent of the 4,000 local students are enrolled in the classes in Mercer County.  Donations cover the costs, so the argument is not over money.

Instead, the debate echoes debates heard in other parts of the country over such things as a painting of Jesus over a school entrance or Christmas pageants.

On the surface, the question seems simple: teach religion or not.  However, one look at the demographics of Mercer County, located at the southern tip of the state, tells a different story.

Mercer County's locale
The population of the area is 62,000.  Of those, in 2000, most were mainline or Evangelical Protestant, according to the U.S. Religion Census.  However, just 10 years later, both of those groups collectively had lost 25 percent of their followers. People claiming no affiliation to any religion blossomed 20 percent in that decade.

In fact, according to the published research, more than 58 percent of the residents of this staunchly Republican community now belong to no church.

That means more people opposed to classes on religion taught in school.  At the same time, believers are becoming increasingly scarce, and, as a result, they are desperate to smother their children in a blanket of their fading faiths.

“It is very important that what we teach at home can be moved on to the school and instilled there and moved to the church and it’s still there so that it moves in a circle,” explained Cherilyn Thomas, whose daughter takes the classes.

The key problem is that the students don’t know the difference between belief and knowledge.  They are taught English, history, science and other topics in school and think religion is equal to them.  It isn’t.  Religion is belief, not fact.  As we all know, there are multiple beliefs.  Which one should be taught?

Some students do not participate in the Bible classes.  They face peer pressure and downright abuse.  Elizabeth Deal took her daughter, Sophie, out of the school system because of bullying. “They taunted her about it. They told her that she was going to hell, that I was going to hell, that her father was going to hell,” Deal said

Mercer County schools insist the Bible is being taught for its “literary and historic qualities," a media account reported.  “To completely eliminate a Bible course would be an unprecedented and drastic step,” Hiram Sasser, a lawyer representing the school board, said in the published article. “The only issue that ever arises is any kind of implementation.”

Statue of Zeus
He has a point.  The Bible is a key element in Western Civilization. We all should know about its historical influence   In fact, at one time, such courses were not unusual.  I took elective classes in college, which looked at the Bible through historical and philosophical prisms. I also took a high school class that touched on comparative religion, but that course was aborted by Roman Catholic parents objecting to the even-handed content. 

The same thing will happen in Mercer County and in every school that tries to actually teach about religion rather than indoctrinate.  The debate also won’t be slacking off anytime soon.  The faithful want to ensure everyone believes what they do, even as their belief begins its slow descent into the pit containing such now-ignored deities as Zeus, Odin and Osiris.

Until that happens, the faithful will continue to fight their losing battle. That’s not belief; that’s history.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University.  You can reach him at
 He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.


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