Ohio considers bill mandating regular religious instruction time for students

Two GOP lawmakers aim to enhance an existing Ohio statute by mandating — as opposed to merely permitting — school districts to establish a policy allowing students to receive excused absences for released time religious instruction.

State Representatives Al Cutrona, R-Canfield, and Gary Click, R-Vickery, recently presented House Bill 445, which has undergone one hearing in the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee.

“The connection between religious teaching, schools, and effective governance is inherent in our constitution,” stated Click in his written testimony. “HB 445 does not dictate a specific faith but rather acknowledges the opportunity for religious instruction, open to all beliefs.”

May vs. shall

Presently, Ohio law allows school district boards of education to establish a policy enabling students to participate in released time religious instruction.

HB 445 proposes that school districts must formulate a policy and modify the wording in the Ohio Revised Code from “may” to “shall.”

“While many schools have utilized the permissive language of the law, some school boards have shown reluctance,” explained Click. “Their failure to implement a viable policy in this area denies students and parents their constitutional right to religious freedom, irrespective of intent.”

Cutrona concurred with his co-sponsor.

“Words hold significance and carry weight,” he emphasized. “A small distinction like may versus shall can have substantial implications.”

Released time religious instruction must satisfy three unchanged criteria under the bill: conducted off school premises, privately funded, and necessitate parental consent.

In the 1952 Zorach v. Clauson case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld released time laws allowing students to receive religious instruction off-site during school hours.

State Representative Sarah Fowler Arthur, R-Ashtabula, queried the necessity of the bill, given the existing law.

“Historically, schools tend to adhere to federal law requirements,” she remarked during a recent committee session. “I wonder about the reason for changing state law if the mandate is already in place.”

Click indicated that numerous school districts have rejected programs like LifeWise Academy, an Ohio-based religious instruction program teaching the Bible.

“Clarifying this language will underscore the constitutionality and legality of this practice, affirming its necessity in Ohio to accommodate parents and their children,” Click asserted.

LifeWise Academy

In his testimony, Click highlighted LifeWise Academy.

“(LifeWise founder) Joel Penton devised a robust model providing instructor training, Bible-centered curriculum, and a credible platform for participating schools,” Click stated. “…While LifeWise pioneered this program, it is not exclusive to them; they have shaped the ideal release time model for religious instruction.”

LifeWise was established in 2018, introduced in two Ohio districts in 2019, and currently enrolls nearly 30,000 students in over 12 states. The program is slated to expand to over 170 Ohio districts next school year — spanning a quarter of the state’s districts.

LifeWise, a non-denominational program, endorses the bill.

“The bill grants parents the choice of character-based religious instruction for their children during the school day, in alignment with Supreme Court rulings,” noted Joel Penton, LifeWise’s founder, in a statement.

Despite its support, LifeWise has faced opposition.

Freedom From Religion Foundation Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence penned a missive to over 600 Ohio school districts urging them to refuse LifeWise’s presence.

“LifeWise’s objective is clear: they aim to propagate evangelical Christianity among public school students by forging partnerships with public school districts to introduce LifeWise’s released time Bible classes,” Lawrence disclosed.

Online petitions opposing LifeWise have also surfaced prior to the program’s implementation in school districts.

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