Dropping the Ball

Wood County Schools officials have belatedly made the right decision to paint over a Bible verse that had been above the doors to the wrestling room at Parkersburg South High School, remove the verse from the wrestling team’s school-linked website and remind teachers and coaches not to in any official capacity wear T-shirts bearing the verse. It is a shame it took involvement from the Freedom from Religion Foundation – a member of Atheist Alliance International, by the way – to spur them to do so.

Superintendent Pat Law has appeared to be playing catchup on the issue, saying he did not know who purchased the T-shirts worn by the team, did not know how long the verse had been visible in the school’s gym and did not know whether the verse had been painted by a school district employee.

Given the complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation came nearly two weeks ago, it seems unlikely – or perhaps even irresponsible – that by the time reporters came calling with questions on the matter Law was still so uninformed. But Law did acknowledge he knows “it’s been repeatedly verified in the courts that public institutions such as school systems cannot promote a religion.”

Though the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Bill of Rights, it was none other than Founding Father James Madison who wrote “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” Madison later said “Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.”

Concern that the school might be infringing on the rights of students to express their religious beliefs was quieted when Law said he had not, in fact, taken any action to ban the shirts from being worn by students, at school.

With the removal of the verse from taxpayer-funded and officially sanctioned platforms, while reminding students they are free to wear the shirts if they wish, the school system has met its Constitutional obligation. But the fact so few coaches, teachers, parents and administrators seemed to understand they were violating that obligation is a concern Law had better not leave until June 30 to address.