STAUNTON, Va. – When Heather and Logan Ward's son entered public kindergarten this fall, they were shocked to discover that pupils were taken from class to a nearby church for weekly Bible lessons.
The Wards moved to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley (search) from New York four years ago, and were unaware of the tradition that has remained in Staunton and other rural schools for more than 60 years.
"My reaction is exactly like the reaction of those who come here from a different place — shock and disbelief that we have Bible (search) classes in public schools," Heather Ward said.
Now the Wards and other parents are asking the school board to eliminate or modify the program, which shuttles first-, second- and third-graders to churches during class time for voluntary half-hour Christian lessons and activities.
But the would-be reformers have run into staunch resistance. More than 400 people showed up to weigh in on the issue at a contentious school board meeting in December, and more than 1,000 signed a petition urging the school board to keep the classes.
The six-member school board is scheduled to decide the issue Monday.
Jack Hinton, president of the local private group that offers the lessons, attributes the opposition to a small minority, many of them newcomers to the valley. Without religious classes, he said, "kids get into trouble and have no moral structure on which to combat drugs, sex, pornography and all that."
But many opponents are Staunton natives. They argue that children who opt out are stigmatized and have little to do while their classmates are in Bible classes, taking away precious time for academics in the age of standardized testing.
The Bible classes began in Virginia in 1929 after a majority of students failed a simple Bible test.
The lessons were conducted inside public school classrooms until 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled that the lessons violated the principle of separation of church and state. A few years later, the court revisited the issue and approved classes held away from school premises.
Most towns have done away with the classes, but the 20 school divisions that have kept the classes generally stretch along Interstate 81 in western Virginia, known to some as the state's "Bible Belt." In the Staunton area, more than 80 percent of first-, second- and third-graders participate.
"The people in those communities still have strong Christian faith and want their children to learn this," said JoAnne Shirley, state director of Weekday Religious Education, the private group that offers the lessons.
Although no lawsuits have been filed, the local chapter of the group has hired a lawyer, Gil Davis, who once represented Paula Jones (search) in her sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton. The group also is working with the Rutherford Institute (search), a Charlottesville center that defends Christian rights.
Rutherford President John Whitehead said the classes "are wholly consistent with the First Amendment and this nation's religious heritage."
But opponents argue the classes are divisive, and the schools already have character-education classes, which teach children about right and wrong without religion.
"Christians don't have a monopoly on morality," says Renee Staton, a Staunton native whose husband is Jewish.
Beverly Ridell, who grew up going to the Staunton schools, teaches first- and second-grade Sunday school at church and opposes religious classes during school time.
"I asked them whether Jesus was a Christian and they said 'yes.' When I said, 'Jesus was a Jew,' one girl said, 'But Jesus was a good person,"' Ridell said.
"If Christians are good people, what are Jews? These are 6- and 7-year-old kids. This is an age where what's right and what's wrong are clear and unambiguous."
In nearby Waynesboro, 71 percent of pupils in the second through fourth grades participated in the classes last year, learning the Bible's take on the creation of the world and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
"From a complete-education aspect, it's important to have a basic Biblical knowledge of what some of the stories are from literature you read when you're older," said local WRE President Pam Stoneburner.
Hinton acknowledged that the struggle to keep the Bible classes might be partly based on a desire to cling to tradition in the face of a changing community.
"Tradition has the ability to make you a better person, make you a better citizen, make you involved with the positive aspects of a community," he said.
But parent Heather Ward thinks tradition must evolve.
"Unless we build a wall around our city, we're going to have to deal with the changing demographics," she said. "That's just part of modern life."