‘Released time’ religious instruction programs for public school students expanding with ‘plug and play’ curricula, state legislation

by | Apr 11, 2024

NBC News reports on a controversial program spreading across the country that offers grade school children optional Bible instruction during the school day. LifeWise Academy, a nonprofit religious organization, runs hundreds of such programs in a dozen states with plans to expand, according to the report. The initiative provides weekly half-hour Bible lessons to students whose parents opt in. Typically, children are bussed to a nearby church during “noncore” activities like lunch, gym, library, or art classes.

Is it legal? LifeWise relies on a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1952, Zorach v. Clauson, that upheld as constitutional “released time” religious instruction for public school students during the school day provided the programs are privately funded and take place off campus. The Court however noted that such a program, while constitutional, “may be unwise and improvident from an educational or a community viewpoint.” The majority also warned that “if it were established that one or more teachers were using their office to persuade or force students to take the religious instruction, a wholly different case would be presented.”

But in some school districts offering LifeWise religious instruction, the program has become so prominent that parents who do not opt in worry about the impact of their students being left behind. From NBC:

[P]arents and activists who’ve mobilized against LifeWise say that busing students to nearby churches, where they sometimes collect prizes and eat candy, has made some non-Christian children feel left out or pressured to attend.


“Whether it’s happening on campus or not, this program is bringing religion into the school,” said Demrie Alonzo, an English tutor who works at several schools with LifeWise programs in central Ohio. “It’s not fair to the kids of different religions.”

At Etna Road Elementary School in Whitehall, Ohio, for example, the report notes that “about half” of the 5th grade students, all wearing the same red t-shirts noting their participation in the off-campus evangelical program, head to LifeWise Academy while their classmates have library class.

Meanwhile, many state legislatures are advancing measures related to released religious instruction that not only permit school districts to allow such programs but require them to do so. A law recently enacted in Indiana mandates that principals work with parents and religious programs to allow up to 120 hours per week of off-campus religious instruction during the school day. Similar bills are being considered in Nebraska,  Ohio and Oklahoma.

For its part, LifeWise touts the impact of Bible education on students’ mental health and academic outcomes. Far from being a community-driven initiative, however, LifeWise is a national organization that offers a “plug n play” approach that “provides all the tools to launch and maintain an effective program,” including a prescribed 5-year curriculum built on the organization’s “historic, Orthodox Christian beliefs as expressed in the Nicene Creed.”

Just because a program is allowed doesn’t make it a good idea, as the Supreme Court stated in Zorach. Widespread released time programs run the risk of alienating nonparticipating students and dividing a student population along religious lines. Instead, public schools should be a place for students of all backgrounds and religious perspectives to come together, a place where all can feel they equally belong.