STAUNTON, Va. -- 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.
Jack Hinton helps third-graders Brian Smith, left, and Noah Balsley with an assignment during their Bible class in Staunton, Va.
(Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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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.
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.
"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. The first classes were held in the Washington region in 1929 in Arlington and Fairfax counties.
For decades, the lessons were conducted inside public school classrooms. But in its 1948 decision McCollum v. 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 v. 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.