More than 60 students sat at their desks in the First Assembly of God Church's Christian Academy of Alexandria yesterday morning and studied their lessons on reading and writing, good and evil, and learned there is, for some things, a higher authority than City Hall.
"We felt in our hearts that the Holy Spirit's mandate is much more significant than anybody, a secular body, telling us how to function," said the Rev. Thomas F. Gulbronson, First Assembly's 40-year-old pastor and the force behind the creation of the church's elementary and high school.
Last month the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to revoke the church's special-use zoning permit to operate the school in a residentially zoned area. Church officials had failed to comply with conditions designed to relieve neighbors' complaints that the school would bring noise and traffic congestion to the quiet community in Alexandria's affluent North Ridge section.
"The issue is its impact on the residential neighborhood that it is a part of," said Alexandria Vice Mayor James P. Moran Jr. "It has absolutely nothing to do with the practice of their religion." He said the city is planning no immediate action against the church.
As of midnight Monday, time was supposed to run out on the controversial school at 700 West Braddock Road. According to the City Council's edict, the school's classes should have been canceled. They were not.
Julaine Christensen taught her classroom of 15 sixth-through-eighth graders. Across from the Fellowship Hall, in an open space that doubles as a chapel for morning prayer and a place for the school's fledgling cheerleaders to practice, older children pondered the questions of state versus religious freedoms.
On the wall, in pieces of colored construction paper, a chart detailing the ascending authority of the U.S. judicial system was topped by only the U.S. Supreme Court--and God.
And that, say church officials, is the issue between them and the city.
For months city officials, North Ridge residents and the 800-member congregation have been fighting over the fundamentalist church's right to teach school on their 5.2-acre grounds. When the church refused to build a wooden fence around its property and limit the size and age of its 66-member student body, neighbors complained. But church members claimed they were victims of religious persecution against them.
Indeed, some area residents call the followers of the Pentecostal denomination "narrow-minded," "simple" and "wild." Said a woman who lives near the church, "I'm afraid of them, myself."
Though most residents say they are concerned only that the school will disturb their tranquil neighborhood, Gulbronson is aware of such sentiments. Sunday, during an emotional worship service puncutuated with singing and dancing and "praising the Lord," Gulbronson asked his congregation to pray for the church's neighbors and the City Council.
He has accused the school's opponents of being under "satanic" influence. The church also is challenging the constitutionality of the city's actions in federal court.
"We didn't ask the city for permission to teach," Gulbronson said recently.
"If they can tell us that we can't teach Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, when are they going to step in and say you can't teach on Sunday? . . . We will continue to teach our children."