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News / Churches & Religion

Christian group expands classes at public schools

Concern grows over religious instruction at public schools

By ISABELLA VOLMERT, Associated Press
Published: June 15, 2024, 5:14am

INDIANAPOLIS — An Ohio nonprofit that provides off-site Bible instruction to public school students during classroom hours says it will triple its programs in Indiana this fall after new legislation forced school districts to comply.

To participating families, nondenominational LifeWise Academy programs supplement religious instruction. But critics in Indiana worry the programs spend public school resources on religion, proselytize to students of other faiths and remove children from class in a state already struggling with literacy.

LifeWise founder and CEO Joel Penton told The Associated Press that many parents want religious instruction to be part of their children’s education.

“Values of faith and the Bible are absolutely central to many families,” Penton said. “And so they want to demonstrate to their children that it is central to their lives.”

Public schools cannot promote any religion under the First Amendment, but a 1952 Supreme Court ruling centered on New York schools cleared the way for programs like LifeWise. Individual places of worship often work with schools to host programs off campus, and they are not regulated in some states.

LifeWise officials addressed the Oklahoma and Ohio legislatures in support of laws that would require schools to cooperate with off-site religious programs, Penton said, and Oklahoma’s Republican governor signed one such bill into law Wednesday.

Similar bills have been introduced in Ohio, Nebraska, Georgia and Mississippi this year, according to an AP analysis of Plural, a legislative tracking database.

LifeWise programs will be available at over 520 locations in 23 states next school year, up from 331 in 13 states this year, and about 31,000 students attend LifeWise programs in the U.S., Penton said.

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Penton wants LifeWise to be available to “50 million public school students nationwide,” he said.

In Indiana, Republican state Rep. Kendell Culp introduced the legislation requiring principals to allow students to attend release-time religious education after a rural school stopped cooperating with LifeWise. The bill was signed into law in March and subsequently 45 Indiana schools will work with the company this fall, triple the number from last year.

LifeWise Academy, based in Hilliard, Ohio, is funded by donors, including more than $13 million in contributions from July 2022 to June 2023, according to its latest federal report.

The curriculum was developed in conjunction with the Gospel Project, a Bible study plan produced by an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, Penton said. Instructors are provided with guidance on how to respond to difficult questions, including about the afterlife and sex. LifeWise opposes same-sex marriage, as well as transgender and gender-fluid identities.

“Our guide helps classroom educators address these questions with compassion, humility and respect,” Penton said in a statement.

Chris Paulsen, CEO of LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group Indiana Youth Group, voiced concern that children can receive Christian religious instruction during the school day “yet no one can talk about queer families.” Indiana bans “human sexuality” instruction in schools through third grade.

LifeWise staff and volunteers either bus or drive students from school to the program sites, or use spaces near schools and supervise children walking there.

Indiana law and the 1952 Supreme Court ruling say no public funds can be spent on supplemental religious education, but critics worry schools expend public resources on scheduling and getting children to and from the programs.

“It just puts another burden on the teachers,” said Michelle Carrera, a high school English teacher in Culp’s district.