The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging over 600 Ohio school districts not to be pressured into allowing released time for students to attend bible study programs.
The state/church watchdog has recently been contacted by concerned Ohioans regarding LifeWise Academy’s increasing presence in Ohio’s public school districts. Public school districts under Ohio law aren’t legally required to authorize release time for students to attend religious instruction off-campus during school hours. However, districts throughout the state have unfortunately begun approving release time for LifeWise’s bible study classes, without fully understanding constitutional concerns and how large-scale released time religious programs like LifeWise can negatively impact educational goals.
LifeWise Academy is a released time bible study program that, according to its own website, seeks to provide “Bible-based character education to public school students” during regular school hours. The curriculum is “designed to take students through the entire Bible” over a period of five years, which requires students to miss roughly an hour of class each week for half a decade. LifeWise is created and run by Stand for Truth Ministry, a “Christian ministry that exists for one purpose, and one purpose only — to take the Gospel to students in America’s public schools.”
“Per its own words, LifeWise’s goal is clear: They seek to indoctrinate and convert public school students to evangelical Christianity by convincing public school districts to partner with them in bringing LifeWise released time bible classes to public school communities,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence writes to more than 600 Ohio school districts. “All too often, districts not only authorize LifeWise’s classes, but they proceed to inappropriately and unconstitutionally devote public resources to helping promote, organize and encourage student attendance at an overtly evangelical Christian bible study class.”
Released time programs can also lead to negative consequences for students who do not participate, FFRF points out. In communities where a significant portion or majority of students participate in such bible classes, the students who do not join are inevitably singled out in the eyes of their peers. Released time programs often encourage students to try to persuade non-attending students to join the program, leading to bullying.
Moreover, non-attending students often are not provided with adequate substantive lessons while their peers attend the released time bible classes. FFRF has received several complaints from families in different school districts alleging that non-attending students were given busy work, or no work at all, as a consequence of staying at school during released time. FFRF has also received at least one complaint that a school assigned non-attending students additional homework seemingly as punishment for refusing to participate in a released time program.
And students miss valuable educational time by attending LifeWise bible study program. While Ohio law states that students who attend released time classes assume the responsibility of completing any missed work, LifeWise appears to operate by assuming students will be excused from completing any school work they miss while attending the classes. Given that LifeWise’s released time bible study program is designed to take five entire school years to complete, this means students miss a significant amount of regular course time by the end of the program.
Public school students have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination in their schools, FFRF emphasizes. Districts that partner with LifeWise open themselves to a greater risk of students being unconstitutionally encouraged or coerced to participate in released time bible study classes.
Furthermore, public schools and their communities are increasingly diverse, serving students who belong to minority religions and no religion. Public school district approval of such bible study programs needlessly alienates students and families who practice a minority religion, as well as those students part of the 49 percent of Generation Z that is religiously unaffiliated.
FFRF is urging districts that have not already implemented a released time policy to refrain from doing so, since Ohio law does not require allowing this disruption to the school day. School districts that have already put in place policies allowing students to be released from their secular public education to attend LifeWise or any other released time program should reconsider, the state/church watchdog advises.
“Not only secular and minority religion students but participating students are being punished by losing hundreds of hours of academic instruction to LifeWise’s released time bible study classes,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor says. “If parents want their children to learn about the bible, there are so many ways to do it without cutting into valuable school hours.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,000 members and three chapters in Ohio. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.