A rural tradition causes dissension in small towns
Lunch is over and some classes already are at recess when a group of schoolchildren at McSwain Elementary stands up, puts on coats, walks 200 feet across the playground and files into Memorial Baptist Church.
Over the next half-hour, the Bible shapes the lesson plan.
The children pray, sing and play games with a Christian theme. In one class, 12 third-graders hear a story and pray to Jesus, repenting for acting "growly." In another, third-graders eagerly offer 24 names for Jesus. They praise the Lord in song: "You're my savior, you're my messiah." They bow their heads and repeat the Lord's Prayer.
Then they don their coats again, leave the church and trek back to rejoin the few classmates whose parents declined to enroll their children in the weekday religious classes.
The scene is repeated with different groups of children four times a day, each Monday and Wednesday, at McSwain and three other public elementary schools in Staunton.
Part of the fabric
For 65 years, weekday Bible classes have been part of the fabric of growing up in this town of 24,000 in Augusta County and in a score of other small towns and hamlets in rural Virginia. It is such an accepted tradition that 80 to 85 percent of the first-, second- and third-graders in Staunton participate.
But now, the practice is being challenged by a group of parents who have asked the school board to end or modify weekday religious education. Not only do they fear that their children are stigmatized for not attending, but in a decidedly 21st-century twist, they also argue that interrupting class for Bible study hinders efforts to meet state and national standards for test scores.
"I just think a Christian outreach program doesn't belong in the school day," said Beverly Riddell, one of several parents who protested to the School Board. "The bar is being raised on both the [Standards of Learning] and No Child Left Behind. Overall, we're doing great on the SOLs, but there are still children who are failing them. That means we're in some sense failing them."
The issue has stirred passions in this otherwise tranquil town off Interstate 81 that is the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson.
More than 400 people attended a recent School Board meeting that lasted four hours, until everyone had a say. Many said after-school Bible classes would be impractical because they would conflict with the schedules of working parents. More than 1,000 residents signed a petition urging the School Board to continue the weekly Bible classes in the middle of the school day.
'Will of the people'
"If they flout the will of the people in the community, we'll schedule a recall election, and we'll kick them out," said Jack Hinton, head of a group affiliated with the Virginia Council of Churches that funds and administers the classes. "We have a small core of a group philosophically opposed to any connection between religiosity and schools. They're articulate and persuasive, but they are in the minority."
Bible classes in public schools were once common across the nation. The first proponents in the early years of the last century were liberal Protestant reformers who believed Christianity would mitigate the evils of segregation and war, according to Jonathan Zimmerman, author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools." In Virginia, weekday religious education gained momentum in the 1920s when a majority of high school students flunked a simple Bible test.
For decades, the lessons were conducted inside public school classrooms. But in its 1948 decision McCollum vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that the lessons violated the principle of separation of church and state. Amid criticism that it was atheistic, the court returned to the issue four years later in Zorach vs. Clauson. That decision approved classes held away from school premises, ruling that the practice might be unwise from an educational viewpoint but that to prevent it would be hostile to religious freedom.
Over the years, the classes' popularity dwindled. Today, weekday Bible classes are held in about 20 locations throughout Virginia. Almost all are in rural communities along the I-81 corridor.
According to the Virginia Council of Churches, 12,073 students are enrolled, including some in Waynesboro and Natural Bridge and Rockingham County.
Areas more diverse
Even there, they are coming under increasing pressure as once-homogenous areas grow more diverse, attracting newcomers who come from different countries and traditions, or from urban areas where the practice was abandoned long ago.
At first incredulous, many of those newcomers turn to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"One of the most common calls we receive comes from people who've moved from other states, particularly north of Virginia, into rural communities in southwest Virginia," said Kent Willis, director of the ACLU's Virginia chapter. "They call and ask, 'Is this legal?' They've never experienced it before."
After explaining Zorach, Willis asks for details on how the program is run to ensure that it meets the legal test. Teachers cannot encourage participation, for example. But few ever pursue the issue.
"These are close-knit communities," he said. "Even if they object, they understand they will generate a lot of controversy and be fairly unpopular as a result."
Opponents in Staunton were emboldened after the School Board in nearby Harrisonburg voted in August to end weekday religious classes that had existed for 75 years.
Citing tougher academic achievement standards, the board said students needed to spend the 30 minutes a week set aside for Bible classes boning up for achievement tests.
In the ensuing weeks, several Staunton parents contacted School Board members and suggested that they follow suit. A decision is expected in mid-February.
School officials say they are confident that they meet the constitutional requirements.
Run by volunteers
At the beginning of each school year, students take permission slips home that must be signed by their parents if they wish to attend. Program volunteers escort the children to and from classes -- held in churches or mobile homes adjacent to the schools. Teachers' salaries are paid through contributions from churches, and the curriculum is fashioned to reinforce lessons in SOL guidelines.
"We don't participate or encourage participation," said Harry Lunsford, the superintendent of schools. Children who do not attend stay in their classroom to do artwork or remedial studies, he said.
"Generally, new work is not started, because the majority would fall behind," Lunsford said.
Some parents say that time is wasted.
"The children left behind in the classroom have nothing meaningful to do," said Heather Ward, who moved to the area from New York City and has decided not to enroll her young son and daughter when they start attending school. "It's busywork. Coloring or drawing. There are some who choose to send their child simply because the alternative is to be ostracized and just sit there."
Amy Diduch, who teaches economics at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, said she felt fortunate that one-third of the children in her daughter's first-grade class do not attend.
"We happen to be Christians, but we do not want her to be a part of excluding other children," she said. "They get worksheets to do. She tolerates them, but they're not advancing her education. What bothers me is that the ones left behind are at a loss for additional instruction."
Supporters say the classes encourage model behavior that benefits everyone.
"The basis is definitely Christian, but it's not fire and brimstone," said Andrea Oakes, who has enrolled two of her three children in the classes. "The teachings are more history, geography and character-building. It's about learning to be a good person, a good citizen, even good manners. It teaches children not to lie, steal or cheat, and to abide by the law. It's a program that has worked well for our city."
David Cook, who enjoyed the classes as a child and now has enrolled his son, said the program is not so time-consuming that it hurts academics.
"It equates to six minutes a day of school time," he said. "How that would be detrimental to standards of learning, it's hard for me to fathom."
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said schools attempting to follow the spirit of the law need to ensure that children who opt out are not neglected.
"Parents ought to pressure the school to make sure their kids get the attention they deserve," he said. "It's not time off for teachers. If teachers are doing their job, the parents should be celebrating because their kids get extra academic help."