A federal judge held on Friday that elementary school Bible classes violate the Constitution's mandated separation of church and state.

The classes have been held for 51 years in Rhea County — the same county where the Scopes "monkey trial" was held in 1925.

In banning the classes, U.S. District Judge Allan Edgar wrote that the government "may not teach, or allow the teaching of a distinct religious viewpoint."

The challenge was brought by a couple with two children who attended the schools and joined by a nonprofit advocacy group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The identity of the families was not disclosed.

For 30 minutes, about 800 children in kindergarten through fifth grade were invited to participate in the Bible classes. No parental consent was sought, although students were allowed to participate in other activities if they wished to do so.

A trial in the case had been scheduled for Feb. 19. Rhea County school Superintendent Sue Porter said she wanted a trial to show that the classes include "character education."

The plaintiffs asked the judge to rule before the trial, however, and Edgar granted the request.

County school officials "acted with both purpose and effect to endorse and advance religion in the public schools," he wrote.

Edgar also noted that it was not religion, but the teaching of a specific religion, that was forbidden.

"It has never been held that there is a ban on all religious activity in public schools," Edgar wrote. "For example, a student may voluntarily pray at school. Also, religious organizations may use public school facilities under some circumstances."

In Dayton, a rural town about 40 miles north of Chattanooga, another challenge to religious education took place some 77 years ago.

School teacher John T. Scopes was prosecuted in 1925 for teaching evolution instead of creationism. The trial, known as the Scopes monkey trial, pitted two of the country's best attorneys against each other, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but his conviction was thrown out on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.