Bible schools: How Waynesboro students get religion

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO JEN@READTHEHOOK.COM

Mollie Bryan expected some culture shock when she moved from Washington, D.C., to Waynesboro. In the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Augusta County is God's country: more rural, more small town, more P. Buckley Moss.

What she didn't realize is that it really is God's country, a place where faith runs deep and folks routinely ask a newcomer where she goes to church. And it's a place where children are taken out of public schools for Bible education– and have been for decades.

She didn't realize when– in her monthly column in the Staunton News Leader– she called the Weekday Religious Education program (WRE) "an enormous waste of time," that she'd unleash a maelstrom of controversy and hate mail and find out just how passionately Augustans feel about religion's role in the school day.

 

The Bible bus

  Children in grades two through four at Waynesboro's four public elementary schools board the blue-and-white "Bible bus" 12 times a year to head over to Glovier Methodist Church to learn about the Bible.

"Protestant– basically Christian– history" is how Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Lowell Lemons describes the classes.

"They [supporters of the program] have a stated mission to provide religious education to children whose families are not churchgoers," he says. And he stresses that the program is optional: "Students and their families can opt out."

When Lemons first arrived in Waynesboro seven or eight years ago, he reviewed some of the additions to the school curriculum, such as fire education, DARE, and WRE, to see if they were necessary. He also held public hearings.

People were passionate in their outpouring of support for Bible classes. "This community has said it's important," says Lemons. He doesn't get many complaints about the program. "When folks understand it's a longstanding community activity, they accept it," he explains.

Pam Stoneburner also was surprised when she moved to Waynesboro from northern Virginia and discovered the Bible bus. "I was delighted," says Stoneburner, who's now president of the WRE council in Waynesboro.

Weekday Religious Education has been going on in Waynesboro for 63 years– and for 75 in nearby Staunton. Once, school systems all over the state had WRE programs, including Albemarle County.

Today they exist in 20 school districts in Virginia, primarily up and down the I-81 corridor, "in the more rural parts of the state," says John Barton at the Virginia Council of Churches, which supports the programs.

Council figures show that about 13,000 children attend WRE classes in Virginia. Nationally, 250,000 children in 32 states are released from public schools for Bible class– even on the Left Coast, where California has one of the largest programs in places like Orange County.

At the beginning of the school year, Waynesboro parents receive permission slips to sign up their second, third, and fourth graders for Bible studies. Area churches fund the program's $50,000 annual budget.

"By law, we're not allowed to proselytize," says Stoneburner, "so it's just telling Bible stories from the Old Testament and New Testament."

Stoneburner thinks education is not complete without the Bible– and 75 percent of the parents in Waynesboro seem to agree. At least that's the number giving permission for their children to attend the classes.

But for Stoneburner, the benefits aren't limited to learning Biblical history. "I think the value is to show that including God in your education is important," she says.

Debates over whether the Ten Commandments are appropriate in government buildings or whether "under God" should be included in the Pledge of Allegiance are part of what Stoneburner describes as a culture war.

"I think that's a sad state for our country," she says. "It was founded on Biblical principles. If you get away from that, I think society will crumble."

 

"Thoroughly Modern Mollie"

 Columnist Mollie Bryan says she heard that children had come home in tears after being told they were "going to hell" for not attending Weekday Religious Education classes.

She'd just enrolled her oldest daughter in kindergarten, and in her News Leader "Thoroughly Modern Mollie" column, she voiced some of a mother's concerns in sending her firstborn off to school: public versus private schools, bad influences, SOLs– and WRE.

"Our kids could be learning something educational, not getting religion, which after all should be a family matter," wrote Bryan, who particularly dislikes the fact that in deciding whether to give permission for their children to attend WRE, parents have to make a choice about religion that becomes public for their children.

"Christian bigot," "hypocrite," and "misinformed" were among the responses. "I got tons of hate mail, and people calling me 'anti-Christian,'" she says. "And they were going to pray for me. That irritated me."

Bryan admits she was frightened by the ferocity of the response to her column, which appeared on Easter Sunday. "Nobody said, 'I'm going to kill you,' but the tone of the letters I found threatening. I wouldn't be surprised if I get a cross burned in my yard."

Bryan also got another type of response: mail from supporters afraid to say anything publicly out of fear for their jobs or their children. "It blows my mind," she says. "When so many people are afraid to express their views about an issue in the community, something is wrong and out of place."

 

Deja vu

 "I can't believe they're still doing that," says Susan McKibbin repeatedly during an interview. Now an Ivy resident, McKibbin was astounded to find out about the Bible bus when she moved to Waynesboro in 1983.

When the permission slip for Weekday Religious Education came home, the New Jersey-raised McKibbin tossed it in the trash. She says the head of the WRE program at the time called her at home and grilled her.

McKibbin was particularly interested in how the woman got her number. "She said she got it from the superintendent," says McKibbin.

McKibbin says her effort to get a list of parents at her son's elementary school to elicit support from those who shared her concerns met a dead end. "The school board," she recalls, "wouldn't release the names to me."

She went to Parent Teacher Organization meetings. "People were really mad that I was asking if other people felt like me. I thought, where have I moved?"

She did not give permission for her sons, Nathan and Chris, to attend WRE classes. "The teachers really resented being stuck with my kid," she says. "They love WRE because they get a couple of hours off."

Nathan McKibbin, now 26, watched his classmates leave on Friday afternoons. "I stayed with another classmate whose father was a Baptist minister," he says, adding that his third-grade teacher "was really great" and kept them busy with interesting projects. "In the fifth grade, my teacher wanted her free time, so my mother would come pick me up," he says.

"Not fun at all," is how Chris McKibbin, now 23, recalls his time doing book reports while his friends boarded the Bible bus. "I went once to see what it was like. They were having a blast, making candles. The fact they can go on recess while other kids have to study is unfair."

Susan McKibbin found herself indirectly supporting Weekday Religious Education. "I gave money to my church, and part of that was going to the WRE program," she says. "That always bugged me."

She scoffs at the program's purpose of reaching children who don't go to church: "This is a town with 50 churches. It's not like these kids couldn't find a church."

Actually, a phone directory lists 72 churches in Waynesboro, and they're overwhelmingly Protestant, including four Mennonite churches. There's one Catholic Church, but no synagogue, mosque, or Buddhist temple is listed for this town of 20,000 that's 87 percent white, according to the 2002 U.S. Census.

WRE president Pam Stoneburner says that 50 percent of the children who are enrolled in Bible school do not attend church. Without WRE, she says, they could be left "Biblically illiterate."

One thing that worried McKibbin was turning her boys over to unknown teachers in a church basement. "Who are these people?" she asks. "Look at the Catholic priests. Just because someone is religious doesn't mean you can trust them with your kid."

"We do background checks similar to what they do for public school teachers," says Stoneburner. "For our liability insurance, we have to have two teachers."

After a while, McKibbin backed off her admittedly unpopular public crusade. Her husband was trying to set up a medical practice, and she realized the possible consequences of rocking the boat.

And she had to ponder what one city official told her: "There's nothing you can do unless you want to be the parent who goes to the ACLU. Do you know what that means if you're the parent?"

 

Separation of church and state

 Ever since the Constitutional framers first wrote, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," the courts have struggled with exactly what the Establishment Clause means.

Zorach v. Clauson is the 1952 U.S. Supreme Court decision that protects Weekday Religious Education programs. Four years earlier, the court had ruled that it was unconstitutional for a public school to allow religious education on its premises. Then came Zorach, which said there was nothing wrong with allowing children to be released during the day to attend religious courses off the school grounds.

"In the entire history of the Establishment Clause, there are two cases that don't fit," says Kent Willis, executive director of ACLU of Virginia. "This is one."

Virginia's Guidelines for Religious Education Activity in Public Schools, approved by the Virginia State Board of Education in 1995, acknowledge that "release time programs" have been Constitutionally upheld as "accommodations of the spiritual needs of our people."

School administrators are warned to avoid "excessive entanglement" with religion. Therefore, public schools may not pay for the classes or pressure students to participate, nor are agents of religious organizations allowed to recruit students at school.

"It's a problem not only in principle but also in practice," says Willis, "because ultimately, there is no realistic way to have release programs in public schools that do not have school endorsement."

Willis believes the Supreme Court went too far to accommodate religion. "It's appropriate for schools to accommodate individual religious beliefs," he continues. "It's another to redesign classroom schedules for students to leave the premises to take religious education."

Over at another civil liberties organization, the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, founder John Whitehead calls Zorach a way for the Supreme Court to say, "We're not really against religion."

In McCollum v. Board of Education, a 1948 case, the Court was called atheistic for ruling against religious instruction in the schools. Whitehead says Justice William O. Douglas wrote Zorach while being considered for vice president: "It was a way of showing, 'I'm not atheistic.'"

While Whitehead wonders how effective the WRE classes are, he likes the idea of kids getting away from campus. "It's a way," he says, "for schools to show they can accommodate religion."

While Whitehead and Willis disagree on the appropriateness of Zorach, they do agree on one thing: The chances of the Supreme Court overturning it anytime soon are nil.

"It's a Supreme Court precedent," says Willis. He cites the composition of the current court and the "faith-based" mood of the country after 9/11 as reasons why the case probably won't be challenged.

"Zorach is one of those decisions that are engraved on the wall," says Whitehead.

 

Bible trailers

 Ladd Elementary School sits outside the Waynesboro city limits in Augusta County. Unlike the city kids, county students at Ladd merely walk a few feet off school grounds to the WRE trailer.

And while the little smidgen of land where the trailer sits is carved out of a neighboring apartment complex, students enter via the school parking lot.

"I don't know what's taught," says Augusta Assistant Superintendent George Earhart. "It's not a school program. Augusta County public schools are neutral on WRE. We do not promote it or deny it."

Most of Augusta's 12 elementary schools have conveniently located WRE trailers just off school property. "There may be one school that has a bus," says Earhart.

He says no space is set aside in schools for instruction, although the WRE may have a mailbox. As for the number of Augusta County children enrolled in the program, "I couldn't tell you how many children attend or what grades."

Earhart does mention that he attended WRE as a child, and that his church recently announced a workday to put siding on one of the trailers.

In Staunton, two elementary schools have "well-maintained" trailers, and children in two other schools walk to WRE classes in nearby churches, according to its WRE president, who is still so steamed about Mollie Bryan's column in the News Leader that he insists his name not be used in this article.

"She was very deliberate in misrepresenting WRE," he says. When asked for specifics, the president says, "Just about everything... She was complaining about the kids left behind."

He boasts that the program enjoys overwhelming community support, with 95 percent of the first, second, and third graders in the city attending the classes.

"The five percent who don't go, usually there's some reason," he says. "The parents don't want their children to have anything to do with the Bible, or for some weird reason don't want to teach them the true word."

Actually, according to Staunton Schools Superintendent Harry Lunsford, 486 children attend the classes while 101 don't, making the number of students who attend almost 83 percent, a decline from the days when the Staunton program really did enjoy 95 percent participation.

Students go for 30 minutes a week, which doesn't cut into instructional time because Staunton has a slightly longer school day than what's required by the state, says Lunsford. And the children who don't go to WRE get "one-on-one enrichment," he says.

 

Those left behind

 At the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro, the Rev. Ed Piper has heard concerns about the impact on non-participating students.

"The stories I've heard, some teachers handle it well; for some, [not participating] is a negative," he says. "Students sit there and do nothing or do classroom chores, such as clean the chalk board."

Piper believes subtle pressures are exerted on the children who don't go to WRE, both by teachers and classmates. "Some students have been questioned by their schoolmates why they're not participating," he says.

"Children should not have to choose a religious preference in front of school mates," wrote Bryan in her controversial column.

The school administrators who spoke with The Hook say they are not aware of teasing or harassment of children who don't go to Bible classes.

"How do they know?" Bryan fires back. "I do wonder about the Jewish kid, the Moslem, the Hindu kid."

"If another religious group wanted to have their own class during that time, they'd have the right to develop it," Stoneburner points out.

"There is no place to send them for equal time," says Rabbi Joe Blair at the Temple House of Israel in Staunton, the only synagogue in Augusta County. "My sense is very strongly that if people want religion, that's fine, but they should do it on their own time."

Blair's Staunton congregation comprises 40 families. How do they feel about WRE? "Most of the people here who are congregants do not want to make waves," answers Blair. "They feel the downside is worse than the upside."

And were Islamic or Jewish parents to demand their own classes, "that just opens new questions or sets of circumstances," says Superintendent Lemons. "We have to be able to demonstrate we're fair. Our greatest dilemma is to protect our core education."

For not attending, Nathan and Chris McKibbin say they got mostly curiosity from their classmates. Nathan says he was "kind of an outcast, but not in a bad way."

Later, Chris noticed a touch of envy in some of his friends. "They all felt it was forced on them and they had to go. Their parents made them."

Shawn Decker says it's been years since he thought about the WRE classes he attended while he was a student at Westwood Hills Elementary. "I guess I blocked it out," he says. He remembers that the students who didn't go to WRE were perceived as having "weird parents who didn't want their children to go to church," and that was equated with "worship of the devil."

Decker made news as a sixth grader in 1987 when he was diagnosed as HIV positive and was kicked out of school. "They didn't deal with it very well," he says. And some churches wouldn't let his mother bring him there. Of course Decker's experience with Waynesboro in the early days of AIDS when there was a lot of fear about how the disease was contracted didn't show the city in its most tolerant light. "I think they have trouble with anything they don't understand," he says.

As for WRE, "It's a big waste of time," he declares. "They should be teaching math."

 

Witnessing

 Melanie Humphries had two children in Weekday Religious Education. Hers, like many in Waynesboro, is a Christian household. The value of the program for her children was to "reinforce for them Biblical standards for how we should live, Biblical history, and the values of how we should love one another and treat each other fairly."

She says her children loved it, and not just for getting out of class. They had workbooks and learned Bible stories that were reinforced with games. "On Christmas and Easter, the teacher would take them into the church for a little service," she says.

Humphries understands concerns about taking away from classroom time, but says the children in WRE learn history and mapping skills.

Four of Kelly Eldredge's five children have gone to WRE. "I think it's important for children to know God is someone you don't leave at church on Sunday," she says. "He's someone you have a personal relationship with."

She worries about the children who don't go to church, who don't know that God "loved them and died for them." And she loves that religion is part of the school week: "Children need that spiritual part so much."

Another parent, who's Catholic, says she has no problem with the concept of Weekday Religious Education, but she took her son out of the program because he thought it was a waste of time when he could have been reading.

"He said it was a lot of crafts, coloring, memorizing for treats– he thought it was babyfied," says the mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I don't want to have to deal with the repercussions with people saying something. I guess I'm like everyone else."

Even Ed Piper at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro finds it "disturbing how fearful people are of being quoted, including myself." And he calls the attacks on Mollie Bryan "mean spirited."

The religious right, too, feels under siege nationally as "Merry Christmas" becomes greeting non grata, replaced by "Happy holidays" in schools.

The country waits for a Supreme Court decision on whether school children must recite "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Multitudes flocked to Alabama last year to risk arrest in support of Chief Justice Roy Moore, who installed a 2.6-ton Ten Commandments monument in the state Supreme Court building. Both the granite monument and Moore have since been removed.

Certainly in the Shenandoah Valley, a vocal percentage wants to keep Weekday Religious Education in their schools. "Religious education has long been part of the reality of this country," says John Barton at the Virginia Council of Churches. "WRE wants to focus on the whole being– the spiritual and religious dimension that schools don't focus on. We also support separation of church and state. We feel it's inappropriate to teach any one religion."

That's not how Mollie Bryan sees it play out in WRE classes. "By teaching Christianity only, we are saying to kids there is only one way to God. And I think that is a dangerous viewpoint," she says.

Pam Stoneburner has one fervent desire for WRE in Waynesboro. "I hope it won't get to the point where the minority who doesn't want it prevails over the majority who do."

Insert philosophical line here.


Mollie Bryan raised a ruckus in Augusta County when she objected to Bible classes during the school day.

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO


Pam Stoneburner, head of the Weekday Religious Education program in Waynesboro, plants flowers in the outline of a cross in her garden before racing off to a picnic at her daughter's school.

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO


When Lowell Lemons, superintendent of Waynesboro city schools, held public hearings on continuing the Bible bus, he got no response from those who objected to the program, while those who supported it turned out in droves.

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO


Only a chain link fence separates the WRE trailer from Ladd Elementary in the outskirts of Waynesboro.

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO


The Bible bus takes Waynesboro elementary school children to Glovier Methodist Church to learn Christian history.


Waynesboro public school children learn about the Bible at Glovier Methodist.


Thirty minutes west of Charlottesville, Waynesboro combines industry with a small-town feel.

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