Principal Steven Wentland says he just wanted to give his students at the Belridge Elementary School here in the central California oil patch the best textbooks he could find.

But the textbooks, donated by a patron whom Wentland will not name and published by a Florida company that describes itself as "unashamedly Christian and traditional in its approach," contained such overtly religious material that Veronica Van Ry decided she should contact the American Civil Liberties Union and pull her 12-year-old daughter, Rita Elliot, out of the school. Rita will not be attending this fall.

The family's problems with the books?

They are filled with biblical references and quotes, dismiss non-Christians as those denied a place in heaven and describe mathematics as "part of the truth and order that God has built into reality."

And so unfolded the latest battle in a newly invigorated war over the appropriate place for religion and religious messages--from the posting of the Ten Commandments to the teaching of evolution vs. creationism--in the nation's schools.

The issue has gotten new attention--from school boards, concerned parents, Congress and the political left and right--following the series of schoolyard massacres in the last few years.

In this case, Principal Wentland, whose self-printed business card reads "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord," is pushing the envelope on the questions of separation of church and state.

The Belridge school, with kindergarten through eighth grade, sits at the edge of a lonely housing tract in the middle of the oil fields. Here, oil and gas wells dominate the tree-less horizon. Off the small county roads, the signs posted by Exxon and Shell subcontractors warn the curious of dangerous poisonous gases. Most of the parents at the Belridge school either work for the oil and gas companies or in a nearby farming community.

In a news conference Wednesday from Bakersfield, Wentland defended himself against charges by Kern County education officials that he is operating as an outlaw of the Christian Right.

"We'll see today who is standing after Round Two," Wentland said early Wednesday morning. "We would never violate a student's rights."

The textbooks, published by A Beka Book Inc. of Pensacola, Fla., are flavored heavily with fundamentalist Christian ideologies. The books are popular among children schooled at home by their parents and by Christian schools.

In its history books, the authors state that "God allowed America to remain hidden from Europe until Columbus discovered it."

"The Renaissance revived the classical literature and scientific ideas of ancient Greece and Rome and inspired beautiful art, but it also promoted pagan ideas and immorality."

The books say that the ancestors of Native Americans came to the New World after Noah's Flood 4,000 years ago after being cast out of the Tower of Babel, and that "the early American Indians, like most other people, had forsaken the things that their ancestors knew about God. Their stories about the Creation and the Flood were not accurate."

The texts also decry Unitarianism and the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as "challenges to Christianity" and call Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science "cults."

Wentland said that the books would have been edited by both the parents and the teachers--but that they were never used.

Last week, on behalf of Veronica Van Ry, the ACLU sued to have the textbooks yanked and to require Wentland to remove a banner in the cafeteria that welcomed students with the message, "This is the day the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad."

Van Ry has declined an interview, but she did issue this statement through her ACLU attorneys: "It is not the place for public schools to teach religious tenets to students. The Constitution leaves that job to parents and children together, in their homes and in their houses of worship."

Wentland secured representation from the Pacific Justice Institute in Sacramento, which describes itself as specializing in religious freedom and parents' rights. The chair of its advisory board is Edwin Meese III, attorney general during the Reagan administration.

Wentland and his attorney, Brad Dacus, agreed to settle the matter without going to court, by pulling the books for now but retaining the right to edit them and use them in the future. They described their actions not as a capitulation, but as the reasonable thing to do to protect the students from "a three-ring circus" of media and lawsuits.

"The following school year we won't allow anyone to discriminate against their right to use the material," Dacus said. Edited, Dacus said, the books would pass constitutional muster and are "outstanding" textbooks. "The key question is what actual material is given to students."

Michael Small, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, says the books could probably never be edited enough to be used. "In all my years, I've never seen a case this egregious," Small said. "I mean, this is way, way out there. You see the stuff about the happy slave? How Muslims aren't going to go to heaven?"

Small said of Wentland, "He's a scary guy."

For his part, Wentland does not seem scary. He is quiet and calm, and an oversized teddy bear sits in his office.

But his office also contains Bible quotations and a picture of Jesus, and the entry hall into the Belridge Elementary School office features quotes from Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln speaking of God's role in the formation and destiny of the nation.

With the support of the school board, whose members declined to be interviewed, the Belridge School District, whose one public elementary school is attended by about 60 students, has taken an upfront stand on the need to insert God into the learning environment.

The Belridge School District's mission statement begins: "Education is effective and has purpose when we believe that God has given us the task to educate our children through love." It goes on to affirm "the sanctity of human life" and the need "to honor God, parents, country and school."

By God, Wentland explains, "we don't mean just any old god, but the named God, the one spoken of by our country's founding fathers."

On the school district's Web page (http://www.belridge.org), Wentland also included a sort of students' religious bill of rights, outlining practices that legal rulings have deemed not to violate the separation of church and state clause in the Constitution, such as individual prayer, Bible study groups and the invocation of God or religion in certain settings. Some of the Web postings have been removed to satisfy the ACLU.

"I believe in the separation of church and state," Wentland said late last week, sitting on a bench overlooking a new jungle gym and the faraway dusty brown hills of western Kern County. "But what I don't understand is the separation of God from the state."

He says that if Congress opens its sessions with prayers and if dollar bills proclaim "In God we trust," then "why if they acknowledge the existence of God must we bend over backward to hide his existence from our students?"

A mother of a third-grade student at Belridge, who asked that her name not be used, said: "I think we all appreciate what Mr. Wentland is trying to do. This is such a little school and most of the parents think it's a good idea to get a little religion in the classroom. But I think maybe he got us into trouble because he went too far with it. Some of the things in the books, I could see how somebody might be offended."

Wentland said it was never his intention to push religion at his charges. His opponent over at the ACLU is not so sure. "These textbooks read like religious tracts," Small said.

Both sides promise to keep an eye on the other, and that the issue is not settled.

CAPTION: Belridge Elementary Principal Steven Wentland, at a news conference Wednesday in Bakersfield, Calif., defended himself against accusations by county education officials.