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Bible Breaks at Public Schools Face Challenges in Rural Virginia

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.

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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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.

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.

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