Originally created 05/05/04

Religious program appeals to pupils

Almedia Harrison wants God in her son's life.

She said the public schools have all but banned religion, and that's why an off-campus program by the Christian Learning Centers of Augusta seemed like the perfect fit for 10-year-old Davonte.

Every Monday, CLCA volunteers pick up Davonte and 27 other pupils at John Milledge Elementary School and walk them across the playground to Crawford Avenue Baptist Church. Instead of physical-education classes, the fourth- and fifth-graders spend 45 minutes in small classrooms hearing Bible stories, singing about Jesus and memorizing verses. Then they return to school.

ìHe's learned a lot about the Bible. He comes home and questions me," Ms. Harrison said. ìHe really enjoys it and looks forward to Mondays."

The center is wrapping up its first full year running a Released Time program in Richmond County, and organizer Jane Dennis said the group will ask the school board in June not only to continue the Milledge program but also to expand it to another unidentified school.After much debate last year, the Richmond County Board of Education approved the program over the complaints from a few who said it violated separation of church and state. School board attorney Pete Fletcher told the board the system avoided legal issues by having a position of ìneutral accommodation, not active participation."

School board President Jeff Padgett said he has heard no complaints and has received letters asking him to support expansion. He said he will listen to the group's plan next month.

ìThe way I saw it was that it provided choice for parents. You take it, or you don't," he said. ìI think we have to be clear that we don't get entangled in the church-state angle."

Released Time education was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952, when the court said ìno government funding for religious instruction" did not mean a requirement of hostility.

The court noted that it was good to accommodate such instruction.CLCA, a non profit organization, runs the program with volunteer contributions from individuals, churches, businesses and civic clubs. The program costs the school system nothing, and the class is free to pupils, who are required to get parental permission to attend.

Some pupils give up some of their PE classes, but they still receive the state-mandated hours in the class.

Other time is taken from recess and lunch periods.

Pupils receive free Bibles and learn a non denominational Christian, Bible-based curriculum.

In a downstairs room at the Crawford Avenue Baptist Church on Monday, volunteer Jenkie Hatcher led a group of six children in a song about Jesus, backed up with music from a small boom box.

Later, she illustrated God as the Bread of Life with a dinner roll and talked about hunger.

ìThe Bible says that we have another kind of hunger ñ the hunger to know God," she said.

Volunteer Manuela Miller played a tic-tac-toe game in which children who answered Bible questions correctly could earn a spot on the board.

Davonte had good things to say after leaving the church this week.ìI like it," he said. ìIt tells me how to learn about Jesus. It tells me how to follow his word and his perfect plan."

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 823-3851or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.

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