Atheist group urges Ohio school districts to reject off-campus Bible class program

Children involved in LifeWise Academy, a Christian ministry that provides release time Bible instruction for public school students, pose in this file photo.
Children involved in LifeWise Academy, a Christian ministry that provides release time Bible instruction for public school students, pose in this file photo. | Lifewise Academy

A prominent atheist advocacy organization is calling on school districts in Ohio to reject an off-campus Bible class program that public school students can participate in during regular school hours.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to Ohio's approximately 600 school districts on Tuesday objecting to the approval of released-time Bible classes organized by the Ohio-based ministry LifeWise Academy.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the letter's distribution, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor asserted that "participating students are being punished by losing hundreds of hours of academic instruction to LifeWise's released time bible study classes."

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"If parents want their children to learn about the bible, there are so many ways to do it without cutting into valuable school hours," she added. "The released time program involves a public school allowing students to attend religious instruction during school hours, provided that it is off-campus and not directly endorsed by the school itself."

FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote in the letter that "Ohio law does not require allowing this disruption to the school day" and asked that any school district that has already approved the program "reconsider" their decision.

"At a minimum, school districts allowing released time must ensure that district staff members are aware of their obligations under the Constitution," wrote Lawrence. "A public school district cannot constitutionally encourage student attendance at released time bible classes, nor may it expend district resources to promote, organize, or otherwise facilitate released time bible classes."

Lawrence claimed the goal of LifeWise Academy is "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 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 behind during released time classes," Lawrence continued.

"Additionally, we have received at least one complaint reporting that a school assigned non-attending students additional homework seemingly as punishment for refusing to participate in a released time program."

A spokesperson for LifeWise Academy told The Christian Post in a statement Thursday that they welcome the attention. 

"Our greatest obstacle is not enough people know about the amazing opportunity LifeWise offers students so we appreciate the FFRF investing their resources to help spread the word," stated the spokesperson.

"They did a wonderful job pointing out released time religious instruction as an entirely legal option for schools and families. We trust school officials and parents to make good educational decisions for their communities without being bullied by the efforts of outside activists."

Launched in 2019 to provide released-time religious instruction for public school students, LifeWise recently announced that over 300 schools across 11 states are participating in the programming.

In an earlier interview with CP, LifeWise founder and CEO Joel Penton said that the released-time Bible course has "received far less resistance than we 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," Penton said.

In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Zorach v. Clauson that released-time programs did not violate the U.S. Constitution, with the majority concluding that there is "no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence."

"When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions," the majority continued.  

"To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe." 

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