Friday, February 11, 2005

STAUNTON, Va. — Heather and Logan Ward moved from New York to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley four years ago because they wanted a simpler life.

Like many recent transplants, the Wards were pleased to discover Staunton’s grand Victorian architecture, a vibrant downtown and “a lot of open-minded, progressive people.”

But when their son entered public kindergarten this past fall, they discovered that pupils leave classrooms for weekly Bible lessons, a tradition in Staunton and other communities in rural Virginia for more than 60 years.

“My reaction is exactly like the reaction of those who come here from a different place — shock and disbelief that we have Bible classes in public schools,” said Mrs. Ward.

One day each week, first-, second- and third-graders in Staunton’s four elementary schools are escorted during class time to nearby churches for voluntary half-hour Christian lessons and activities.

The Wards and other parents are asking the School Boardto eliminate or modify the program, saying that children who opt out are stigmatized and have little to do during that time because teachers aren’t allowed to introduce new material while their classmates are in Bible classes.

More than 400 people showed up to discuss the issue at a contentious School Board meeting in December. One board member has said that it’s possible to strike an arrangement that would address the concerns of opponents and supporters. The six-member board is scheduled to decide the issue Monday.

The private group that offers the lessons, the local Weekday Religious Education Association, has hired an attorney, Gil Davis, who once represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton. The group also is working with the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville center that defends Christian rights.

Rutherford President John Whitehead said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1952 that allowing public school pupils to be released to religious classes doesn’t violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

“In fact, such programs are wholly consistent with the First Amendment and this nation’s religious heritage,” he said.

Jack Hinton, president of the local religious education group, attributed the opposition to a small minority, many of them newcomers to the valley.

But many opponents are area natives, including Beverly Ridell, who grew up going to the Staunton schools and now has a child in public kindergarten. She spoke against the Bible classes because they take away from academic time in the age of standardized testing and divide children by religious affiliation.

“I teach first- and second-grade Sunday school at church,” she said. “I asked them whether Jesus was a Christian and they said ‘yes.’ When I said, ‘Jesus was a Jew,’ one girl said, ‘But Jesus was a good person.’ ”

“If Christians are good people, what are Jews? These are 6- and 7-year-old kids. This is an age where what’s right and what’s wrong are clear and unambiguous,” Mrs. Ridell said.

Mr. Hinton said the classes have been part of life in the valley for decades — and students have become better citizens because of them.

Without the classes, he said, “kids get into trouble and have no moral structure on which to combat drugs, sex, pornography and all that.”

Renee Staton, a Staunton native whose husband is Jewish, questioned that argument because the schools already have character-education classes.

“Christians don’t have a monopoly on morality,” she said.

The Christian classes began in Virginia in 1929 after the majority of students failed a simple Bible test. Most localities have done away with them, but the 20 school divisions that have kept the classes generally stretch along Interstate 81 in western Virginia, known to some as the state’s “Bible belt.”

“The people in those communities still have strong Christian faith and want their children to learn this,” said Joanne Shirley, state director of Weekday Religious Education (WERE), an arm of the Virginia Council of Churches.

In nearby Waynesboro, 71 percent of pupils in the second through fourth grades participated in the classes last year, learning about topics such as God’s creation of the world and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“From a complete-education aspect, it’s important to have a basic biblical knowledge of what some of the stories are from literature you read when you’re older,” said local WERE President Pam Stoneburner.

Mr. Hinton acknowledged that the struggle to keep the Bible classes might be partly based on a desire to cling to tradition in the face of a changing community — but that’s not a bad thing.

“Tradition has the ability to make you a better person, make you a better citizen, make you involved with the positive aspects of a community,” he said.

But Mrs. Ward thinks tradition must evolve.

“Unless we build a wall around our city, we’re going to have to deal with the changing demographics,” she said. “That’s just part of modern life.”

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