Bible verse removed from gym, website

PARKERSBURG – A Bible verse that prompted a complaint from a group advocating separation of church and state was painted over in Parkersburg South High School’s gymnasium Tuesday and also removed from the school wrestling team’s website, Wood County Schools officials said.

The Wisconsin-based, nonprofit Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to Wood County Schools Superintendent Pat Law earlier this month saying the wrestling team’s use of Philippians 4:13 – which states “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” or “him who gives me strength,” depending on the translation – as a motto violates the First Amendment.

“All Wood County schools are obligated to maintain a position of neutrality toward religion and to ensure that school staff members do not proselytize at school or school-sponsored events,” the letter says. “Parents and taxpayers expect and desire a secular education.”

Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the foundation, said the letter was sent after the group was contacted by someone from this area.

“We received a complaint from someone locally specifically about the ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ being the team’s motto,” he said.

The letter cites T-shirts bearing the verse that team members wore this season as one example of the use of the verse, but Elliott said that wasn’t the crux of the matter. The letter also referred to use of the verse on the team’s Web page, which is linked to the school’s.

Law said that has been taken down.

The verse had also been painted above the double doors to the wrestling room in South’s gym. Law confirmed Tuesday that it was being painted over.

“We’re working with our legal (counsel) to do what we understand is the correct action to take place,” he said.

Law declined to allow the painting process to be photographed Tuesday. He said he did not know how long the verse had been in place in the gym and whether it had been painted by a district employee.

South Principal Tom Eschbacher declined comment and referred all questions to the district office.

Law said he could not comment further on the matter, as the district was still seeking legal advice. Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton is the district’s legal counsel and did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has taken schools and other government bodies to court over religious displays, but Elliott said he does not think that will be necessary in this case.

“I’m glad to hear that they’re being proactive in fixing this rather than let it languish,” he said. If things continue in this direction, “I think there would be no need for legal action.”

The families of some of the team members have enlisted the aid of Parkersburg attorney Bill Merriman after the complaint was received.

“We certainly don’t expect the government to promote or authorize a religion, but we don’t want them to take away an individual’s right to express themselves as long as they’re doing it in a Constitutional way,” Merriman said Tuesday.

Law said in an earlier interview that he had not taken any action to ban the shirts from being worn at school. Merriman said students were told they could no longer wear the shirts.

“It’s not part of the uniform,” he said. “If the student athlete chooses to wear it, they can; if they don’t want to, they don’t have to.”

Elliott said the foundation does not oppose students wearing shirts with religious expressions, but they should not be worn by teachers and coaches.

“As an official team motto, we’ve got a problem with that,” he said.

Merriman said he only recently received a copy of the foundation’s letter and had not had time to review it. He said he did not have enough information to comment on removal of the verse from the gym, but as for taking it off of the website, “I think that was probably appropriately done.”