One of the courses that has meant the most to John Ray, a public high school senior in this Georgia mountain town, isn't math or English, but one on God and the Bible.
To take it, Mr. Ray needs his parent's written permission. But he's eager to go to the small off-campus classroom each day because it helps him with difficult issues in his life. At fifteen years old, "I [learned] I was going to be a father," Ray says. The course "helped guide me."
Called a released-time program, because students leave school to attend, the course provides an example of how religion and public education quietly coexist here and across the country at a time of emotional debate over prayer in the classroom.
Efforts to make religion a fourth 'R' have grown in recent years as parents, politicians, and preachers grasp for solutions to what they say is a decline in morals and values, evidenced in part by high teen-pregnancy rates, a rise in one-parent families, and growing youth violence.
Two years ago, House Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer. Some states, including Georgia, have instituted moment-of-silence policies. Now released-time programs, around since 1914, are experiencing a mini resurgence too.
"Communities are seeing that something has got to be done. The at-risk behavior has just gone off the chart in the last 30 years," says Grayson Hartgrove, a businessman who has helped start three released-time programs in South Carolina this fall and hopes to have 11 more running this spring.
Released-time programs provide religious education to public-school students during the school day. The caveats are that the programs be taught off campus, require parental permission, are privately funded, are offered as an elective, and are not promoted by the schools.
A 1993 survey by the National Association of Released Time Christian Education (NARTCE) found 250,000 students from California to Maine participated in Christian released-time.
But other religions - from Judaism to Islam - also have programs. In Utah and Idaho, thousands of students attend released-time classes sponsored by the Mormon Church.
Released-time programs were started in 1914 by an Indiana elementary school superintendent, and other grade schools copied the idea. In 1948 the Supreme Court ruled the courses couldn't operate on school grounds or use public funds, and many programs disbanded, believing the court ruled them unconstitutional.
Four years later, the high court set the ground rules for released-time, mandating the programs could be offered as long as they are privately funded and are held off campus.
"As long as schools dot their i's and cross their t's, and don't do anything that encourages the practice of religion, this is a reasonable way to accommodate the religious needs of parents and students," says Denny Lee, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Today, released-time programs are growing mainly in rural areas, particularly in Washington, Oregon, and South Carolina.
"In suburban/urban districts it's harder to get those kind of programs in," says John Atkinson, president the Long Beach, Calif.-based NARTCE. "Administrators are extremely leery and teachers unions are generally not supportive because they feel there are already a bunch of programs where kids are taken out of the classrooms.
"But in some of the smaller rural districts where parents have a much more representative voice," Mr. Atkinson says, "there've been a lot of programs started."
A number of Christian organizations sponsor the courses and train people to teach, often introducing the concept to churches and then helping them present the idea to schools.
Although some school officials are antagonistic, many are receptive once they understand the program is legal, says Roger Blankenship, director of school ministry for Scripture Union, an interdenominational group based in Wayne, Penn.
"We're seeing greater openness to release time," he says. "I don't think there's this evil conspiracy to shut religion out of all aspects of life as a whole.... But educators aren't ... looking for opportunities to have religious instruction. They have their hands full, and part of our job is to let them know this isn't going to add more burden on their schedules."
Here in Ellijay, the released-time course has been offered since 1985, when a group of businessmen built the Gilmore Christian Learning Center just a short walk from the school.
While most programs target elementary school students, the one here focuses on high-schoolers. Between 50 to 70 percent of the school's roughly 700 students sign up for the elective which is taught each day.
The effort received little opposition, mainly because the county is conservative and people looked at the course as a way to reach area youth, says Sid Webb, director of the center. "We have many of the problems kids in cities face - teen pregnancy, dropouts, a heavy divorce rate, abuse, depression.... We're trying to do something for them spiritually."
A Christian perspective
The course here covers youth issues from a Christian perspective. Topics include sex, drug use, getting along with people, and how to succeed in marriage. Often the class begins with a prayer; Bible passages are also used and quoted.
Mr. Webb says the course tries not to be sectarian. "When it was first started, concerns were voiced that the program not be one church's outreach," he says. "We didn't want a wild-eyed fundamentalist program."
The course attracts both students who regularly attend church and those who don't. Nationwide, about half of the students who sign up for released-time are not churchgoers, Mr. Blankenship says, but are "just exploring."
Students who do attend church in Ellijay say they like the program because the informal, open forum enables them to discuss issues they don't feel comfortable talking about in Sunday school.
"In church you shield back from asking things," says Amy Hebden, a junior. "Here you don't have to hide. You can talk about everything."