Mercer County Bible in the Schools case dismissed

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May 18—BLUEFIELD — In a settlement in which a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit concerning Bible classes once taught in Mercer County Schools, an insurer for the school system has agreed to pay $225,000 to cover the plaintiffs' costs and attorneys fees, the Freedom from Religion Foundation announced Tuesday.

Senior United States District Judge David A. Faber dismissed a lawsuit Monday concerning the former Bible in the Schools program and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), according to court documents.

"On a former day came the parties, by counsel, and advised the Court that all matters in controversy herein have been completely compromised and settled between those parties and jointly moved the Court for dismissal of this action, with prejudice," according to the order Judge signed Monday. "The Court finds from the representations of counsel that all matters in controversy between those parties have in fact been compromised and settled. It is therefore ORDERED and ADJUDGED that this civil action be, and the same hereby is, dismissed from the docket of this Court, with prejudice."

"In the case, it was agreed that the plaintiffs' attorneys could recover attorney fees in the event of an adverse verdict against the defendants, so a settlement was reached in that amount ($225,000) with the plaintiffs," said attorney Kermit Moore, who represents Mercer County Schools. "The case has been dismissed and the insurance carrier for the board of education paid the settlement."

The FFRF, with Elizabeth Deal as a plaintiff, filed a lawsuit against the Mercer County Board of Education and the former superintendent of schools, Deborah Akers, in January 2017 to stop the Bible in the Schools program, which had been offered as an elective to elementary school students for 75 years. Deal said that her daughter, who was in elementary school at that time, was allegedly harassed and ostracized by other students for not taking the class.

The case's plaintiffs included "the young girl and her mother," Moore said.

Although the program's cost, about $500,000 annually, was generated from private donations, the school board administered the program and hired teachers. The FFRF lawsuit contended that the Bible in the Schools instruction was like "Sunday classes" and violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause related to promoting one religion in public schools.

"We are pleased that this violation involving the illegal proselytizing of youngsters has come to a mutual resolution," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "But it should not take a lawsuit and years of effort to stop blatantly unconstitutional school programs."

The FFRF is awarding the student in the case with the Richard & Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award and a $5,000 scholarship, according to FFRF officials. She now attends school in a neighboring school system.

In January 2019, the board of education passed a resolution which ended, rather than suspended, the Bible in the Schools program.

The FFRF thanked the attorneys who handled the case, including Marc Schneider, with the Pittsburgh-based firm Steele Schneider, FFRF Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Chris Line, and Kristina Whiteaker, with the Grubb Law Group, PLLC in Charleston.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com