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Bible Classes Get Blessing of School Board

Staunton Keeps Program But Will Improve Options

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page B05

Students at public elementary schools in Staunton, Va., can continue to take weekly Bible lessons at a church in the middle of the day, the local School Board has decided, although it left open the door to review its decision next year.

The 5 to 1 decision Monday night was a compromise crafted to satisfy parents who want their children released from school for the 30-minute religious classes and those who do not want their children waiting idly until their classmates return or stigmatized for staying behind.

Attorney Gil Davis, left, talks to Jack Hinton at the Staunton School Board meeting. Hinton was ready to sue if the board stopped the Bible classes. (Casey Templeton -- AP)

The board authorized the midday release program for the upcoming school year but promised to provide "educationally meaningful opportunities" for students who do not attend and to send teachers to workshops to develop instructional techniques for the period. It also said it would revisit the issue in a year.

"I want everybody to feel free to be where they want to be, to benefit from that time and to have families feel like their interests are properly taken care of by the schools," said James Harrington, the School Board president and a professor of education at Mary Baldwin College.

The weekday Bible classes attended by more than 80 percent of the district's first-, second- and third-grade students have been an emotional issue in this Shenandoah Valley town, which has 24,000 residents and 75 churches. Though the classes have been held for more than 60 years, several dozen parents sought this year to end the tradition. They said children who did not attend had to defend their beliefs and were deprived of meaningful class work because nothing new could be introduced when most of the students were absent.

Staunton is one of about 20 localities in Virginia, most along the Interstate 81 corridor, that release public school students from classes during the school day for religious instruction in nearby churches or trailers. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have endorsed the practice known as Weekday Religious Education, or WRE, as long as classes are held off school premises.

Jack Hinton, head of the church coalition that administers the Bible classes, said he had collected more than 1,000 signatures supporting the program. He said his group had retained an attorney and was prepared to sue the board if it voted to discontinue the program.

"WRE will rock along as it has for 65 years doing its thing," he said yesterday. "It's the school district's responsibility to provide enrichment for students. If they don't do it, they can't turn around and blame WRE."

Edward Scott, pastor of the Allen Chapel AME Church and the only School Board member to vote against the measure, said he is not convinced it can work equitably.

"It seemed to me the fairest thing was to leave every student in school all day long and provide them the best education we can deliver," said Scott, who at the end of his sermon Sunday removed his robes and walked to the floor to tell his congregants how he planned to vote. "We should leave religious education to parents and the institutions that are better suited to provide it -- the churches."

Beverly Riddell, one of the parents who complained about the classes, said the board's decision gives the release-time program the chance to prove it can be successful.

"Our feeling is that it is on probationary status," she said. "I'm pleased. My daughter's first-grade year is going to be a better experience than if we had never raised the issue."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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