Scopes Trial County Has New Cross to Bear
RHEA COUNTY, Tenn. – For more than 50 years, student volunteers at Bryan College, a Christian college in Rhea County, Tennessee, have been teaching Bible classes in the county's public schools.
"We're teaching sort of a general theme ... such as love, kindness, the good Samaritan," Bryan College student Leah Hochandel told Fox News.
But now, after half a century of singing songs with the students and explaining stories from the Bible, the volunteers' activities are being challenged in federal court.
"This is open proselytizing, harassment if you will," says Bruce Wilkey of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Two Rhea County parents, who wish to remain anonymous, have filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming the Bible classes are unconstitutional. The lawsuit claims the Bible teachings unfairly exclude children who are not Christian and use taxpayer dollars to support religious teachings during school hours.
"Our rights as citizens in this country are granted not on the basis of popularity or majority rules," Wilkey said.
The county school board stands by the program and is digging in for a protracted legal war. "It is unfortunate that such a suit had to be filed," Director of Schools Sue Porter told Fox News.
Rhea County, a rural Bible-Belt area, has seen this kind of controversy before. It was the site of the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial," in which the state of Tennessee prosecuted teacher John Scopes for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution instead of biblical creationism. In fact, Bryan College is named after William Jennings Bryan, the lawyer who prosecuted Scopes for the state.
The debate in the coming legal fight will center on whether the schools are endorsing religious instruction. Critics of the volunteer program say the classes amount to religious indoctrination at taxpayers' expense, whereas supporters claim the classes are purely educational.
The Supreme Court has ruled that religious instruction in public schools is unconstitutional, but Bible teachings are permitted if they are presented objectively as part of a secular education program.
"I don't think it could possibly hurt anyone to gain knowledge" says Hochandel.
But Wilkey sees it differently. "The arrogance being shown by the officials of Rhea County to the rights of the minority citizens in their county is despicable," he said.
The lawsuit seeks to end Bible readings in all the county's public schools during school hours and at taxpayer expense.
Bryan College student Joshua Hood, a volunteer who teaches the classes, told Fox News, "We don't go in to indoctrinate. We go into educate. We go in to teach values, morals, and we use Bible stories to do that."
The legal fight will move forward beneath an air of history as Rhea County once again becomes ground zero in a battle over what may be taught in public schools.
"This isn't surprising at all," Hochandel says. "I mean, we live in the Bible Belt."