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Local support lukewarm for church attendance policy

August 10, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

Should parents of religious-school students be required to attend church?

On Friday, NBC's "Today" show reported on a Wisconsin Catholic church that makes parents go to Mass at least seven out of 10 Sundays or lose a $1,400 tuition subsidy at the church's school.

The priest said the church kept track of attendance through a sign-in sheet and donation envelopes. He also would scan the congregation during services.

A handful of local school and church officials surveyed Friday had mixed feelings about that approach.

Carl W. Gibbs, the new principal of Heritage Academy west of Hagerstown, said he knows of Catholic schools that ask students' parents to attend church.

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But if it's a change in policy, scrutinizing whether parents follow through might draw backlash, he said.

"At some point, you would have to trust your parents," who trust the school to educate their children, Gibbs said.

St. Mary's Catholic Church, which is connected to St. Mary School in Hagerstown, has a tuition structure based upon church membership.

The 2007-08 tuition for St. Mary School was $3,540 for families that are "registered and participating" at St. Mary's Catholic Church or St. Michael Catholic Church in Clear Spring, said Michael P. Morrell, the business manager at St. Mary's.

For Catholics registered and participating at other churches, the tuition is $4,285.

For people who aren't Catholics or aren't practicing Catholics, the tuition is $5,170.

Morrell said "registered" refers to people who sign up as members, and "participating" refers to those who attend Mass and use the numbered envelope donation system.

St. Mary's doesn't strictly monitor if parents abide by the terms.

"We have no policing going on, so to speak, (but) we have requirements," Morrell said. "We'd like people to meet them."

Morrell said tuition doesn't cover the full expense of education; the church subsidizes the rest.

Church members shoulder part of the costs, so they should pay less in tuition than others do, he said.

The Rev. Rick Jewell of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Hagerstown said he supports finding ways to get people to attend church services.

Hopefully, something will spark their interest and they will want to return, he said.

But the approach in Wisconsin sounds excessive, said Jewell, the president of the Hagerstown Area Religious Council.

Craig Bush, the principal of Martinsburg Christian Academy in Berkeley County, W.Va., said he understands the mandate and doesn't oppose it, but church attendance isn't an issue at his school, which is affiliated with Shenandoah Bible Baptist Church.

About 90 percent of the students at his school are from families that belong to the church, and attendance at services already is a way of life for them, Bush said.

A Catholic church school is likely to have a much larger percentage of families that aren't church members, he said.

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