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Bible classes for Va. students challenged

STAUNTON, Va. -- When Heather and Logan Ward's son entered public kindergarten last fall, they were shocked to learn that pupils were taken from class to a nearby church for weekly Bible lessons.

The Wards moved to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley from New York four years ago, and were unaware of the tradition that has remained in Staunton and other rural schools 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," Heather Ward said.

Now the Wards and other parents are asking the school board to eliminate or modify the program, which shuttles students in first through third grades to churches during class time for voluntary half-hour Christian lessons and activities.

But the dissenters have met staunch resistance. More than 400 people showed up to weigh in on the issue at a contentious school board meeting in December, and more than 1,000 signed a petition urging the school board to keep the classes.

The six-member board is scheduled to decide the issue tomorrow.

Jack Hinton, president of the local private group that offers the lessons, attributes the opposition to a small minority, many of them newcomers to the valley. Without religious classes, he said, ''kids get into trouble and have no moral structure on which to combat drugs, sex, pornography, and all that."

But many opponents are Staunton natives. They say children who opt out are stigmatized and have little to do while their classmates are in Bible classes, taking away precious time for academics in the age of standardized testing.

The classes began in Virginia in 1929 after a majority of students failed a simple Bible test. The lessons were taught inside public school classrooms until 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled that the lessons violated the principle of separation of church and state. A few years later, the court revisited the issue and approved classes held off school premises.

Most towns have eliminated the classes, 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. In the Staunton area, more than 80 percent of first-, second-, and third-graders participate.

''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, the private group that offers the lessons.

Although no lawsuits have been filed, the local chapter of the group has hired a lawyer, 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 center in Charlottesville that defends Christian rights.

John Whitehead, president of the institute, said the classes ''are wholly consistent with the First Amendment and this nation's religious heritage."

But opponents say the classes are divisive and note that the schools also have character-education classes, which teach children about right and wrong without religion. ''Christians don't have a monopoly on morality," said Renee Staton, a Staunton native.

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