Leah Markowitz with her children at Concord-St. Andrew’s Cooperative Nursery School. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A small preschool in Bethesda has a big problem on its hands, and God — or at least teaching about God — is at the center of it.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Concord-St. Andrew's Cooperative Nursery School has been educating young children without including much, or anything, in the way of religious instruction, say numerous parents at the school, some of whom attended when they were children. That secular approach was fine with many at the close-knit school, where families and teachers come from a range of religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds and find harmony in their divergent viewpoints.

But all of that appears primed to change.

The school community was roiled in early October when the Rev. Susan Brown, the pastor at Concord-St. Andrew's Church, told the school's director that beginning next academic year, "all classes will incorporate age-appropriate Christian lessons in their daily activities," according to a letter sent to parents.

"It feels like a crusade where they're trying to bring God to the godless nursery school," said Kate Mueller, who is Catholic and has a 3-year-old daughter in the school. "It took so much time and energy and devotion to build what is there now, and now it's being stomped on."

At a presentation for staff members and parents in October, Brown distributed a handout — which was obtained by The Washington Post — that noted the United Methodist church had hired a director for children and youth ministries to help design and integrate new lessons into the curriculum. The document also talked about incorporating prayer and chapel into the regular schedule.

Leah Markowitz with children Mira Budd, 5, and Solomon Budd, 2, left. “Complete disappointment, that was my first reaction,” Markowitz said of the planned change to the curriculum. “And then disgust. What is happening? Why is this happening?” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The planned curriculum changes have not been well-received by many of the parents of the school's 60 or so students. Although the preschool is housed in the church basement, parents say they chose to send their children to Concord-St. Andrew's precisely because it did not teach religion and had a reputation, built up over its 60-year existence, as a school that welcomed children of all faiths — or no faith at all.

They say they willingly signed up for the cooperative aspect of the school, which requires parents to regularly help out in the classroom, but they did not sign up for a school where religion is an organizing structure of the day.

The question of why the church chose to make the switch, after having had such a hands-off policy for years, is one many parents are asking. So far, they haven't heard any satisfactory answers, they say.

Brown did not respond to requests for an interview. The school's director, Amy Forman, declined to comment.

In the handout provided to parents, the church notes, "The CSA Nursery School is not a secular organization; it operates under the church's exempt status with all of the privileges of that status. As such, it must include religious education as part of its primary mission." The handout also references guidance from the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, which sets laws and doctrine for the denomination.

But parents say the meeting held by Brown to explain the change did little to address their concerns or answer their questions.

"Complete disappointment, that was my first reaction," Leah Markowitz, a parent of two children at the school, said of hearing of the planned change to the curriculum. "And then disgust. What is happening? Why is this happening?"

Markowitz, who is Jewish, said she and her husband, who was raised Lutheran, looked at eight preschools before discovering Concord-St. Andrew's, which sits at Goldsboro and River roads. They loved the school immediately, but they are planning to take their children out at year's end after Brown addressed parents and staff members in a tense meeting last month.

"I don't want my kids there," she said.

None of the parents questions whether the church has the authority to change the school's mission. But they still wonder why it is happening now, when they had been given no indication the church was unhappy with how the school operated.

Other parents, who are already scrambling to find preschools for their children to attend next year, are particularly unhappy with how the church has handled the situation.

"Some of us have said we wouldn't have had such a negative reaction if it had played out differently, if the church had acted in a cooperative manner" to find a compromise, said Kelly Headd, who has a 4-year-old at the school.

All of the parents reached for this article said news of the change came as a surprise, given that the church leadership has had little interaction or involvement with the school in the past.

"It's almost like a Hallmark movie, where the big bad corporation is coming in to destroy the little guys, and we're hoping there will be some warm, happy ending," Headd said.

For now, few parents are optimistic about finding an ending that will be satisfactory.

Darren Higgins, who has a 4-year-old at the school and describes himself as nonreligious, said a compromise at this point would not make much of a difference. He and his wife, who attended the cooperative when she was a toddler, still plan to take their child out of the school and will not send their newborn there, either.

"We wanted to give the church the benefit of the doubt, but the way the church went about it was, in short, a very un-Christian thing to do," Higgins said. "In truth, bridges have been burned. If they wanted to resolve this amicably, it would have been a fairly easy discussion to have.

"A breach of trust has occurred."