Public School Bible Program Spreads to 11 States
A Christian ministry out of Ohio is seeing massive growth in a new Bible-based education program for public school students, spreading to over 300 schools across 11 states since its launch in 2019.
The program, established by LifeWise Academy, enables public school students to take advantage of released time religious education that is permitted during school hours, in which students can leave school campus to participate in the instruction with the permission of their parents and the school.
Released time religious instruction during public school hours began in 1914 and steadily grew nationwide, peaking in 1947 with two million students enrolled across 2,200 communities. Since then, the number of students involved in the programs have dwindled as American culture and the public education system became increasingly secularized, punctuated by the Supreme Court’s landmark Engel v. Vitale decision in 1962 banning the recitation of prayer in public schools.
Nevertheless, the right to conduct released time religious education during public school hours was upheld by the Supreme Court’s Zorach v. Clauson decision in 1952. According to Wikipedia, about 250,000 public school students are currently involved in approximately 1,000 released time programs.
As a burgeoning parental rights movement in American public schools increasingly gains momentum, the tide could be turning towards more students taking advantage of released time education for religious instruction. As LifeWise founder and CEO Joel Penton recently told The Christian Post, the number of schools that now allow released time for the ministry’s Bible program has more than doubled over the last year from 133 to 315. The 11 states where the program can now be found are Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
As Penton explained, any school community can adopt the academy’s Bible program through a 10-step process that can be found at the organization’s website. He went on to note that despite the intense controversy that often arises around the issue of religion in schools, he has met less resistance than anticipated. “Most schools and parents are very open to the idea. Schools know there is a great need in the lives of students. And seeing as it’s an entirely optional program, there simply aren’t many people who see it as a problem.”
LifeWise’s website describes its curriculum as “tak[ing] students through the entire Bible over five years” with a focus on learning scripture, taking it to heart, and exploring ways that students can live the lessons out in their lives and communities.
Penton argues that released time programs are the “single greatest missed opportunity to impact the next generation of public school students with biblical literacy.” He pointed to how many Bible study programs for students are scheduled for before and after school, which leaves out a key demographic of students who have conflicting schedules and other logistical challenges. “Operating during school hours, with the permission of both parents and school administrators, has allowed us to better integrate into the school’s culture and reach those previously left out,” he observed.
Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow for Education Studies at Family Research Council, expressed encouragement over LifeWise’s efforts.
“I am glad to see newer iterations of these programs,” she told The Washington Stand. “People hostile to religion are going to criticize these efforts and often misunderstand them. One thing I love about these programs is the absolute insistence on parental approval of participation. It is a reminder of the rights of parents to direct the education of children, especially in matters of faith.”
Kilgannon went on to contend that the principle of conducting religious instruction outside of the public school setting must also apply to all other ideologies.
“We need to encourage school administrators and the general to understand that this principle doesn’t apply only to religious instruction,” she concluded. “Ideologies have no place in the classroom, as they are beliefs imparted to children. Concepts like ‘gender identity’ and instruction in matters related to human sexuality could and should be treated with the same care and discipline.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.