Bible Classes Are Coming to a Public School Near You

It seems to happen every time a law or policy that privileges religious belief is passed, it gets exploited to be used as a sword against those of us who don’t believe or who support separation of religion and government. A ten-year-old Ohio law created to allow students to get high school credit for religious lessons is now being used to inject bible classes into public schools. Leading the charge to convert public school children is LifeWise Academy and they are planning on coming to a public school near you.

To be clear, the current prohibition on having religious classes in a public school still exists but LifeWise is trying to get around settled law by exploiting another US Supreme Court case—ZORACH v. CLAUSON, 343 U.S. 306 (1952)—that decided released time religious instruction policies and laws didn’t violate the constitution. Released Time Religious Instruction (RTRI) is where, with parental permission, a student can leave school to attend a religious activity. In my public school days, RTRI was used, for example, by students of the Catholic faith to attend Ash Wednesday services in the middle of the school day.

In 2013, Ohio Representative Bill Patmon (D), introduced a bill (House Bill 171) that would allow students to be released during the school day to attend religion classes of their choice and to get high school credit for those lessons. In interviews, Patmon claimed that God needed to return to the public schools and claimed without any real data that kids exposed to religion while at school do better academically and behaviorally. The ACLU of Ohio opposed the bill and a spokesperson at the time said: “It seems to me that the way this bill is written, the school is almost powerless to stop any number of religious lessons, teachings, spreading of the faith. They are going to be mandated to reward credit for this type of thing. And when you start talking about the whole hosts of religious faiths and denominations that are out there, everything from Christianity to Scientology to Ancient European Religious, Viking, Rastafarian, Satanism, and all of these other types of things. The legislation cannot certainly start picking to whom it is going to reward credit based on the religion or the religious faith.”

HB 171 was passed and signed into law and became Ohio Revised Code 3313.6022 and sat for almost ten years hardly used.

Joel Penton is a former college football player turned motivational speaker who started Stand for Truth Ministries. He built a career of talking local high schools into bringing him in, and at a mandatory assembly, give a talk about building character or some other non-religious topic. He is a good and entertaining speaker. At the end of his talks he invites the kids to come to a “part two” of the talk that will be held that evening at a local church or even in the same auditorium the assembly was held. This second part of the show is where he is free to proselytize to the kids and try to recruit them to Christianity.

In 2018, while visiting his hometown, Van Wert, Ohio, he was introduced to a released time bible class being run in the Van Wert school district by a local church. Penton adapted the idea and monetized it to create LifeWise Academy. He has stated that getting young students into Christianity is his mission and the public schools is his mission field. He has stated his goal is to tear down public schools and turn them into religious-centered schools.

LifeWise works with local groups to establish bible classes in a school district. The local group staffs and runs the operation and is required to raise money to fund it since it won’t get tax money. LifeWise has a central office in Ohio that provides training and other help. The curriculum is adapted from “The Gospel Project” published by Lifeway Christian Resources. LifeWise also takes a percentage of the local donations as a service fee and charges $20 to $30 per student for liability insurance. Based on public Form 990 submissions (informational annual forms submitted by non-profits to the IRS), LifeWise reported $6.5 million in income in 2021 up from $1.7 million in 2020.

According to a recent report from Ohio Capital Journal, “LifeWise Academy enrolls nearly 30,000 students from more than 300 schools across more than 12 states. LifeWise has a strong presence in Ohio. LifeWise will be in more than 170 Ohio school districts by next school year— more than a quarter of the state’s school districts.” The stated goal is to be in 200 Ohio school districts soon.

LifeWise plans to see all school districts in Ohio adopt a RTRI policy. ORC 3313.6022 was never meant to create a way to have a group of students leave in the middle of a school day to attend a bible school class off campus but that is what it is being used for. Ohio House Bill 445 was recently introduced that would change the law to require school districts to adopt such a policy. Once their foot is in the door, then LifeWise would have free reign.

LifeWise not only teaches Christianity, it teaches its own brand of Christianity. It excludes Jews, Catholics and Mormons and any other sect that doesn’t follow LifeWise’s version. In LifeWise’s own words:

LifeWise Academy maintains a high view of the authority of Scripture and we align  ourselves with historic, orthodox Christian beliefs as expressed in the Nicene Creed. We believe the storyline of Scripture that climaxes in the central gospel message, that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. We believe this gospel is true and essential and announces the way by which sinners are reconciled to God.

In documents given to LifeWise staff, they are directed to only respond in a biblical way if kids ask about controversial issues like, for example, same sex marriage (against God’s teaching) and transgender pronouns (alert the parents).

While LifeWise doesn’t openly proselytize in schools they do give enrolled students candy and other prizes to take back and show the kids who didn’t participate how great the class was and how much fun they had, using peer pressure to get more kids to attend. This is unethical to say the least. There have also been reports of bullying.

Young students aren’t mature enough to understand that they aren’t missing anything if they don’t attend these programs. All they know is that they are missing something fun and candy. Kids left behind at school are given busy work until their classmates come back. LifeWise classes usually happen during a lunch/recess period or in place of a special class like art or music.

Once RTRI is approved in a district, it is open to ANY 3rd party that meets the thin requirements in state law. Any group with the money to setup the infrastructure for a “class” can set up shop and enroll students. The district has no oversight beyond taking attendance.

And do we feel good, in this era of random school shootings and issues with child abuse at the hands of teachers and other adults in schools, that we would allow a 3rd party to spirit off our children under a law that requires no background checks? LifeWise claims they do the usual background checks but they lack so much transparency we really have no idea if that is true. At the end of the day, no matter what the law says and how many waivers are signed, the school district would still be  liable for anything that might happen to the children off school grounds during the school day.

Indiana just passed a law to allow groups like LifeWise to setup shop there and they are coming to your state soon. Not allowing released time is not a violation of religious freedom. Students are free to pray anytime they want and read the Bible during study periods and the family can still attend their church outside of school hours. Bible classes can be organized to happen before or after school as they have always been organized.

Public schools have limited time and resources and shouldn’t be forced to accommodate a group like LifeWise, whose stated mission is completely opposite the mission of a public school.

If you see or hear about LifeWise in your community, take heed and pay attention. It is a dangerous group.