COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Hundreds of public school students in central Ohio have the power to leave campus during the day – not for lunch or recess, but for Bible-based education.
Made possible through a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1952, private religious organizations like the Hilliard-based LifeWise Academy transports students from about 75 public-school districts to off-site locations for religious instruction once a week during school hours, LifeWise founder Joel Penton said.
“There’s a real desire here, there’s a real demand in that parents want to communicate to their children these things are important to us, and so when we send you off to school into an academic setting, we’d like you to receive religious instruction as well,” Penton said.
Religious release policies common in central Ohio
As more central Ohio school districts adopt what’s called a “religious release” policy, more of the state’s public students become eligible for opt-in programs like LifeWise, so long as they receive parental consent.
There are about 125 school buildings within 75 public school districts, mostly within Ohio, that provide students the opportunity to attend the privately funded LifeWise Academy – typically for about an hour-long Bible lesson once a week – free of charge, Penton said.
“We know from experience in the positive power of the Bible and how it really does change hearts and minds and lives,” Penton said. “And so we want to come alongside the school and come to the community and say ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity.’”
Under an Ohio law enacted in 2013, public schools have the option to adopt a religious release time policy that permits students to leave the building to attend religious instruction, with a few caveats:
- A parent or guardian must provide written consent
- No student shall be released from a “core curriculum subject” to attend a religious course
- No public funds or public school personnel are involved in providing the religious instruction
- The sponsoring entity keeps attendance and provides those records to the school district
- Transportation is not provided by the school, but by the sponsoring entity, parent, guardian, or student
- The sponsoring entity assumes liability for the student
- The student assumes responsibility for missed schoolwork
Critics fear LifeWise Academy and similar groups are blurring the lines between church and state and point to concerns about missed class time.
Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro, who leads the 121,000-member public educators’ union, said while he respects the fact that LifeWise is operating legally, removing students from academia on the basis of religion raises some questions – and seems futile given the plethora of religious opportunities outside the classroom.
“Making accommodations for students for their religious beliefs in schools is something that schools do, schools should be doing, but essentially promoting a particular religion is something that takes this to the next level,” DiMauro said.
Which Franklin County school districts have a religious release policy?
An online review of boards of education policies and comments from district spokespeople found that 11 of the 18 public school districts in Franklin County have some sort of religious release policy – but that doesn’t guarantee a program like LifeWise has set up shop in the district.
Grandview City Schools, for instance, has zero students partaking in the release policy, according to a spokesperson. About 20 elementary students participate in the release policy at Westerville City Schools, where kids leave school grounds during recess and lunch, a spokesperson said.
Beginning last year, first through fourth graders at New Albany-Plain Local Schools leave their technology class once a week for a 45-minute LifeWise Academy session, a spokesperson said. New Albany-Plain teachers do not have jurisdiction over the company’s curriculum.
A spokesperson for Upper Arlington Local Schools, while not confirming the number of participants, said elementary students using the release policy miss an elementary explorations lesson, which happens once every two weeks. The policy only operates in one of its schools, but the district reportedly plans to expand it to other elementary buildings.
“It really varies drastically from school to school,” Penton said. “We have some schools that we have literally 90-plus percent of the student body enrolled. We have other schools that we have a very small percentage.”
|District||Religious Release Policy?|
|Bexley City Schools||No|
|Canal Winchester Local Schools||No|
|Columbus City Schools||Yes|
|Dublin City Schools||Yes|
|Gahanna-Jefferson City Schools||No|
|Grandview City Schools||Yes|
|Groveport Madison Local Schools||Yes|
|Hilliard City Schools||Yes|
|New Albany-Plain Local Schools||Yes|
|Reynoldsburg City Schools||No|
|South-Western City Schools||No|
|Upper Arlington City Schools||Yes|
|Westerville City Schools||Yes|
|Whitehall City Schools||Yes|
|Worthington City Schools||No|
Sarah Florimonte, a Hilliard City Schools mother and former board of education candidate, said she fears for the well-being of students who choose not to attend LifeWise Academy and are left behind in sparse classrooms without all of their peers.
“Instead of them receiving instruction, instead of them having art class, these are now elementary schools where the majority of their class is leaving once a week,” Florimonte said. “And now they are not getting education at all during that time because it doesn’t make any sense to provide class to five children.”
Although LifeWise Academy is open to students of all religions, DiMauro said he’s concerned for students who may be Muslim, Jewish, or non-religious.
“I think districts could find themselves in a perilous legal position if they adopt a policy that lifts up one religion over others,” he said. “So if you’re going to allow students to leave, I would think that you’d want to make it equitable across the board.”
Penton, however, argued that the establishment and success of LifeWise Academy can encourage other religious organizations to follow their lead.
“I’ve communicated with a member of the Muslim community who honestly said to me, ‘I’m rooting for LifeWise. I hope that LifeWise can get this done so that we can learn from it and then our Muslim community can offer a similar program,’” Penton said.
Outside of Franklin County, a selection of other schools in the central Ohio region made their religious leave policies clear as well.
These four schools all have a religious release policy:
- Hamilton Local Schools
- Jonathan Alder Local Schools
- Madison-Plains Local Schools
- Olentangy Local Schools
An Olentangy Local Schools spokesperson said students participating in the release program skipped recess for the weekly sessions. The district is working to determine the number of students who participate.
Will students miss electives like art and music?
Under the state law adopted in 2013, students who partake in a school’s religious release policy are barred from leaving the building during a “core subject area,” which the Ohio Revised Code defines as the following:
- Reading and English language arts
- Social studies
- Foreign language
- Fine arts
Most policies adopted by Franklin County districts mention that students cannot leave during a core subject area course, but some, like New Albany-Plain Local Schools, do not distinguish the classes in which students can leave.
“I want people to know that the vast majority of our programs, students don’t miss any special time, so people have latched on to that, ” Penton said. “The truth is that most of our schools find a way that students don’t miss class time, so sometimes it’s lunch and recess, sometimes it’s a library.”
It remains unclear whether Hilliard City Schools, which adopted a religious release policy on Sept. 12, will allow students to leave during electives like art or music, according to board member Brian Perry, who said the superintendent is still determining the policy’s implementation.
Allowing students to bypass elections like art or music “sends a terrible message in terms of implying that the arts are not essential to a well-rounded curriculum for students,” DiMauro said, adding that OEA-member art and music teachers are “offended that somehow the work that they do” is lesser than education provided by a private company.
Perry, who voted against the policy, said he spoke with a board member in a neighboring county who contended the district was having problems with kids being tardy to class and missing important curriculum after coming back from a LifeWise Academy lesson.
“It worries me because they have students who come back late consistently,” Perry said at the Sept. 12 meeting. "They miss core time, and that’s against the law. So who’s punished for that? Who is held accountable?”