Fervent: Stauntonians talk religion in schools

Taking elementary children out of school for Bible study, the subject of the Hook's May 27 cover story, is both a time-honored and controversial tradition in the Shenandoah Valley. That's why when the Staunton School Board decided to hold a public hearing, it soon became standing room only.

In April, Waynesboro author and newspaper columnist Mollie Bryan ignited the discussion about the future of WRE– Weekday Religious Education– with a piece in The News Leader expressing her concerns about the long-running program in which students are exposed to Christian-based teachings based on Bible stories.

Bryan, the mother of a student in the Waynesboro public-school system, focused her column on the role that religion should play in modern public education– which is to say, not much of one, in her opinion.

"I'd like to think that maybe I helped get this going," said Bryan. "I'd like to think that maybe people didn't realize the pressures that students and teachers are facing in the classroom. Maybe I helped create a lens through which we could see these issues and let people know that we can do something to effect a change.

"I'd hate for what I went through after my column was published to have all been for naught," said Bryan, who received a slew of negative mail calling her an anti-Christian bigot and worse.

Fast forward eight months, to the Staunton School Board hearing December 13 about the future of WRE in the Queen City.

"There are people who feel very strongly that this is a good thing for the community on the one side, and there are people on the other side who feel otherwise," said School Board Chairman Jim Harrington. "That is to be expected with an issue like this."

The Board decided to set the public hearing, Harrington said, after hearing from residents with concerns about the WRE program, which offers students in grades 1-3 access to a half-hour of off-campus religious instruction each week.

"It's something that board members have been hearing more about over the course of the past several months," Harrington said. "I'm not sure what might have generated the discussions. I suspect that the recent decision of the school board in Harrisonburg to discontinue the WRE program there might have had something to do with it."

"This whole thing is the effort of a small but vocal group of people who for various and sundry reasons are against the WRE program," said Staunton-Beverley Manor WRE president Jack Hinton.

"One thing that we're hearing from them now is that they're supposedly very concerned about making sure that the children are prepared for the Standards of Learning," Hinton said. "We're talking about students in grades 1-3, first of all. Only students in the third grade take the SOLs. That needs to be pointed out."

But Staunton resident Beverly Riddell doesn't believe the goal of educating all of the children in the school system is being met by WRE.

"It's Christian outreach," said Riddell. "It's not about improving the quality of education."

Queen City denizen Cathy Sliwoski was among those who offered the other side of the WRE story.

"Life lessons are not found on any SOL test," Sliwoski said. "No one coerced us into putting our children into WRE. Nor is anyone ostracized for not participating.

"Isn't it ironic that if we want our children to learn about the Bible, we have to opt in?" she asked. "But if we don't want our children to learn about condoms, we have to opt out? Something is wrong with this picture."

And thus went the give and take among the overflow crowd– which spilled out of the auditorium at A.R. Ware Elementary into an adjoining hallway.

The board took no action. Chair Jim Harrington said beforehand that the objective was to simply "hear from the community about what people are thinking about this."