For most high school students, the school day begins when the bell rings at 8 a.m. But classes begin a full hour earlier for a small group of Mormon students, who gather every morning at 7 o'clock sharp for seminary, where they are prepared for the rest of the day and, the church hopes, the rest of their lives.

Class begins at the Institute of Religion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with a well-orchestrated routine of student-led singing, prayers, Bible readings and recitations before they embark on a methodic study of their scriptures. After four years, they will have examined the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, and Doctrines and Covenants, the modern day prophecies of the church.

"Coming to seminary each morning, you come and know you're ultimately going to be accepted here no matter what," said Becca Williams, a junior at Ashland High School. "Even if you're tired, you just come into this building and get this energy into you and feel good about the rest of your day."

During one recent class, 16 students discussed passages about friendship in — Samuel of the Old Testament.

"Today we're going to talk about loving your enemies ... ooh, is that hard?" asked Scott Shumway, the bishop of the Ashland congregation leading the discussion.

Shumway taught the class for two years, and now substitutes when the regular teacher cannot make it. He said the classes help prepare young Mormons for their two-year missions and adult life in the church.

"We just use the examples that are in the scriptures and then apply it to their daily lives," Shumway said. "When you go through the Scriptures, you'll cover every walk of life, every moral and spiritual issue."

Students said they enjoy the chance to get to know friends in the church who can then support them at school.

"It's not like a classroom setting where you have a few friends," Becca Williams said. "It's like we're a big family."

Several of the students in the class literally are family.

There are five Cluffs in the class from two different families. Two of the brothers are uncles of the other set of siblings, including AHS senior Kaylinn Cluff, who plans to attend Brigham Young University, or as she calls it, "Mormon college," next year.

Her uncle and friend Dallas Cluff not only attends morning seminary classes, he also comes back to the Institute nearly every day for lunch or after school, where he and his friends can play ping pong or just hang out.

Sometimes students' friends are wary of visiting the Institute or wonder what they really believe, but students say the seminary classes also prepare them for questions about their faith.

"I don't really like it when people tell me what I believe," said freshman Jared Gerogianna.

When he buys a soda at school, some friends will tell him, "Oh you can't drink that because you're Mormon," he said. His response? "I think I know what I believe."

Students have heard everything from inquiries about whether Mormons have horns or make sacrifices in their basement, and the seminary class provides a comfortable place to share those stories. One student jokingly said that he doesn't have a basement, so he uses the attic for sacrifices instead, and Bishop Shumway told the class he likes to tell people he was dehorned when he was seven.

For students that continue on to college, there will likely be a similar institute waiting for them on their campus. Ashland's LDS Institute offers classes for Southern Oregon University students, taught by Director of Education David Whitney, on topics such as church history, modern-day prophets and world religions.

"It's great so far," said Brooke Warby, a recent transfer student to SOU who attended high school seminary classes at 6 a.m. in her hometown of Bend. "It's really nice because with Brother Whitney, I can talk to him about anything. If I'm having a bad day, I don't necessarily have to call my mom."

Whether students are in high school or college, the ultimate goal of the classes is the same, Whitney said.

"We try to help them remember who they are and live up to the church's standards and not give in to the world's standards."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .