They call this God's country: The back hills of Virginia where, nestled under the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a small sect of Beachy Amish Mennonites shuns the extravagances of modern life for a simple farming community.

Here the Bible is law, and its warning that sparing the rod will spoil the child is heeded by the workers at the Faith Mission Home for the mentally retarded.

"It's our way of life. What the Bible dictates we intend to live," said Nathan Yoder, who with his bother Reuben oversees the school on an isolated 40-acre tract in Albemarle County.

It is their strict following of this scripture that has led Faith Mission into a court fight with the state of Virginia and invoked the wrath of many in the mental health community, as well as civil libertarians and private citizens.

The Mennonites contend that they have the right to administer spankings to discipline the severely and profoundly retarded children and adults who call Faith Mission their home. The state, citing licensing regulations, disagrees and wants to shut the home if the practice continues. A Circuit Court judge in nearby Charlottesville is to hear both requests today.

The battle has become a complex moral and legal dilemma that, depending on whom you talk to, involves freedom of religion, the rights of the mentally handicapped, a state's responsibility for them and parental authority in making decisions for children.

"The really serious issue is the potential problem of serious abuse," said Leonard Rubenstein, legal director of the Washington-based Mental Health Law Project. "The history of corporal punishment in mental institutions is not a very pretty one."

Caught among the legal questions and the ethical debates are the residents and their parents. A group representing most of the parents -- who include a physician, a journalist and an attorney -- has hired a lawyer.

According to parent coordinator Warren Abrams, the group is ready to plead whatever it takes to keep open a place that they say is a well-run, loving haven for children who have been rejected elsewhere.

"We're trying to keep the school open because we know what a great institution it is," said Abrams, a retired newspaper executive who lives in New Jersey.

Abrams' son Jay Thomas, who is disfigured by Aperts syndrome and has an IQ of about 50, has lived at the home since 1970. "We're still convinced it's the best place for Tom," Abrams said recently. "We know our boy's happy."

Bert Rohrer, spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office, noted that the case is made more difficult by its simplicity: "This is a case where the facts are not in dispute. What's in dispute is the law."

The conflict really started more than a decade ago, but the first court papers were filed last fall.

According to Faith Mission directors and state officials, Betty Grace Horst, a 21-year-old Faith Mission resident, was spanked by a staff member who was trying to teach her a lesson about faking seizures.

Bruises were discovered on Horst's right arm and buttocks Sept. 2 when she was admitted to the Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville for what turned out to be severe, uncontrollable seizures and pneumonia.

The state, which has questioned the home about the use of corporal punishment since it was licensed in 1973, asked a judge to order that it be closed. In October, Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge E. Gerald Tremblay decided against closing it, but he ordered Faith Mission to cease corporal punishment.

Reuben and Nathan Yoder said last week that the beating went beyond the home's guidelines for physical punishment and occurred without the knowledge of the home's administrators.

But they insist that the practice is part of what makes the home function smoothly in a family-like setting, and it is one they say they are bound by religious conviction to continue. Although the home has used leather belts and paddles, it is proposing a policy that would allow spanking with a hand or light paddle.

"It's a Bible command," said Reuben Yoder, casting off the concerns about giving special treatment to the mentally handicapped in a state where corporal punishment is allowed in some public school systems. "The Bible doesn't single out handicapped children."

But Rubenstein said the Bible's word is not enough. "Freedom of religion has never meant that you can justify infringing on other people's right. I don't think you can claim religious freedom for inflicting pain on people who are completely without choice."

At today's hearing in Charlottesville, Tremblay is scheduled to hear pleas from an attorney for the home asking that the ban on corporal punishment be lifted because of its unconstitutional infringement on religious freedoms at the Mennonite facility.

Also, Faith Mission is seeking an exemption from regulation by the state on the grounds that it is a church-supported institution whose practices are out of the purview of the government. In order to strengthen their case, school officials in May ordered the eviction of 12 residents placed there and paid for by the state.

At the hearing, the office of Attorney General Mary Sue Terry is expected to present a case that portrays physical punishment of severely retarded children and adults as a practice that is anathema to mental health care standards. State officials declined to comment on the case pending the court hearing. But in a brief filed June 25, Assistant Attorney General Frank W. Pedrotty said the state has an overriding interest in protecting the mentally disabled.

"The freedom to believe in a religion is an absolute right. The freedom to act remains subject to regulation for the protection of society," Pedrotty stated. "The children and adults at Faith Mission Home are mentally incapable of speaking out against potential abuse."

The case brings into focus a difficult debate on the care and treatment of the mentally handicapped, as experts reexamine the use of physical discipline.

"You'd have a hard time trying not to start a war between pediatricians over whether or not to have corporal punishment for normal children," said Dr. Arnold Gale, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Washington's Children's Hospital Medical Center.

The 34 residents come from throughout the country, and all but a few fall below the clinical range of "educable," with IQs that are under 50; in almost half of the cases, they are below 30. Many have Down's syndrome and cerebral palsy or are microcephalic; a few are legally blind.

Those who are able spend up to an hour a day on basic skills such as counting, writing, identifying colors and matching shapes. Others are guided in self-care techniques such as making beds, and practice eye-hand coordination through craft projects that involve stringing beads and buttoning.

Most of the young adult residents live away from the sprawling one-level stone building that houses offices, classrooms and dormitories. They find some autonomy in group cottages and can earn money by building cedar chests in a wood shop or kneading whole wheat bread sold by the Faith Mission bakery.

Vegetable gardens and a chicken house with 400 hens help the home defray expenses. With the financial support of 50 Mennonite churches nationwide, costs are held down to about $560 per month for each resident. Similar facilities charge as much as $2,400 a month.

A recent noon meal was followed by a round of "Jesus Loves Me" in voices that seemed strong with conviction but did not always manage the words. At the meal's end, everyone helped clear the tables.

The staff members are volunteers who receive room and board and a small allowance for the 24-hour care and instruction they give. Most are young, unmarried adults from Mennonite communities in other parts of the nation. They wear traditional Amish clothing -- ankle-length dresses and white caps, simple work shirts and pants with suspenders -- that is updated only by jogging shoes.

The home opened in 1965. Shortly after the home came under state licensing regulations in 1973, state mental health workers received anonymous reports about excessive use of corporal punishment, according to court papers filed by the state.

In the years since, state officials have challenged Faith Mission officials by using state licensing regulations that prohibit corporal punishment at residential mental health care facilities. The license was not rescinded, however, and the state waived several other licensing requirements, including those involving the educational background of the staff. In keeping with Mennonite tradition, the Yoder brothers, raised on a dairy farm near Grove City, Minn., ended their formal education after the ninth grade.

Joseph J. Bevilacqua, who left in December after more than four years as Virginia's mental health commissioner, explained that the state had not pursued the issue as aggressively as it is now because "there was a general consensus that it was a good program."

In a similar case, a Family Court judge in Attleboro, Mass., ruled this month that the state was wrong in barring a private institution for severely autistic children from administering physical punishment such as pinches and spanks as part of a controversial behavior modification program. The judge cited the effectiveness of the techniques in changing negative behavior.

"It may not be any more inappropriate to smack the bottom of a child who is retarded than to smack a child who is of normal intelligence," according to Gale, a pediatric neurosurgeon who sees brain-injured children regularly in his practice. "I think the people who have distaste for it don't have to raise a retarded child, they don't know what it's like."

In a letter to Faith Mission Home denying their request for an exemption from the corporal punishment ban, Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Commissioner Howard M. Cullum said, "The use of corporal punishment is contrary to accepted national and international standards of care for mentally retarded persons."

Rubenstein agreed. "It's very, very dangerous. If someone has trouble obeying, the risk of physical punishment is going to increase."

But Gale contends that there are medical complexities. Some people with below-normal intelligence have a diminished capacity for pain, he said: "You'll strike some of these kids and they'll giggle."

The Yoder brothers, who said some residents have become uncontrollable since home officials were forced to alter their discipline, insist that frequently this is the only means of communicating.

The staff worker involved in the controversial spanking had worked at the school for more than four years, according to Reuben Yoder. "She had worked with Betty for a long time," he said. "She was frustrated." The worker since has been dismissed; no criminal charge was filed against her.

Under the home's policy, spankings are to be administered only in cases of "open rebellion," Reuben Yoder said. "These children in that way are more normal than the general population would imagine."

Constitutional law experts and public policy and Christian law advocates consider the case an important one because of the civil rights issues.

For Warren Abrams, none of that really matters. Like most of the parents of students at Faith Mission, he is not a Mennonite and does not promote corporal punishment, but he said, "I'm willing to go along with it because of all the other good things" at the school.

One day last week, his son celebrated a birthday by having dinner at a restaurant in a nearby town with some other residents who are now friends.

"I want my child raised exactly the way you raise normal children," Warren Abrams said. "I can't understand why a parent doesn't have the right to decide."Picture 1, Wing of Faith Mission Home, where discipline practices have stirred contoversy. BY JOEL RICHARDSON -- THE WASHINGTON POST