Insurer relents, decides to fund Bible-course battle

Friday, February 13, 1998

A Florida public school board has been informed that its insurance company, after initially denying coverage, will pay legal costs of the district’s battle over a Bible course.

Almost a month before U.S. district court Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich barred a portion of the Lee County School District’s Bible history class from proceeding, AIG Technical Services, Inc. informed the school board it would not pay litigation costs because of constitutional questions about the curriculum.

The insurance company sent a letter last December to school board attorney Keith Martin stating that the board should settle the lawsuit and drop the courses.

AIG’s letter said: “Insurance policies are designed with an intent to preserve and protect financial assets of an insured, and not to test the legal waters for the advancement of an insured’s social or political or legal agendas or missions.”

A month later Kovachevich barred Bible History II from being taught in Lee County schools. The judge ruled that the course, which centers on the New Testament, includes references to miracles and the resurrection that cannot be taught as secular history. The school board must now decide whether to appeal the judge’s ruling or make changes to the New Testament course.

The judge’s ruling stems from a lawsuit filed last December against the school board. Seven Ft. Myers residents, represented by local branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the civil-rights group People for the American Way, sued the school district claiming that the Bible curriculum promotes Christianity in the public schools and therefore violates the separation of church and state.

James Lotz, senior vice president of AIG, has apologized for the company’s letter, removed the employee who wrote the letter, and said the insurance company would provide coverage for the school board’s legal battle, the Naples Daily News reported this week.

AIG officials failed to return phone calls to the First Amendment Center.

Don Campbell, director of district operations for Lee County schools, said the customer service representative who wrote the initial letter denying coverage failed to consult with the insurance company’s attorneys.

“Once the school board voiced concerns about the denial of coverage, the insurance company investigated the situation and concluded that coverage should have been granted,” Campbell told the FAC.

Elliot Mincberg, People for the American Way legal director, told the FAC that the insurance company’s change of heart is linked more to contract law than constitutional issues.

“I don’t think the insurance company’s decision to grant coverage is a suggestion that the New Testament curriculum is constitutionally sound,” Mincberg said.

“Under different kinds of contracts, the insurance company might have had to provided coverage. The decision is made under insurance law and has nothing to do with the constitutional issues raised in this case,” he said.

“Although, I’m sure the county’s insurance carrier is hoping the school board will come up with a constitutional curriculum.”

Campbell agrees with Mincberg’s assertion. “It is my belief that the insurance company based its decision on its contract with Lee County schools,” Campbell said.

The school board has until Thursday to decide whether to appeal the judge’s injunction. Campbell said the board is to meet Wednesday to vote on the situation.