Ohio bill would require school districts to create released time for religious instruction

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Two Republican lawmakers are trying to strengthen an existing Ohio law by requiring — instead of just allowing — school districts to create a policy letting students to be excused from school to go to released time religious instruction.

State Reps. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield, and Gary Click, R-Vickery, recently introduced House Bill 445 and it has had one hearing so far in the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee. 

“The correlation between religious instruction, schools, and good government are embedded in our constitution,” Click said in his written testimony. “You will notice that HB 445 does not establish which religion but merely acknowledges the opportunity for religious instruction. This opportunity is open to all faiths.” 

May vs. shall

Ohio law currently permits school district boards of education to make a policy to let students go to a released time course in religious instruction. 

HB 445 would require school districts to create a policy and changing the wording of the existing law in the Ohio Revised Code from “may” to “shall.”

“While many schools have taken advantage of the permissive language of the law, some school boards have been less accommodating,” Click said. “Regardless of their intentions, their failure to implement a sound policy in this matter results in a denial of both the students’ and parents’ constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”

Cutrona agreed with his co-sponsor. 

“Words have meanings and they really do matter,” he said. “So the difference between a little word like may versus shall can make all the difference in the world.”

Released time religious instruction must meet three criteria which would remain the same under the bill: the courses must take place off school property, be privately funded, and students must have parental permission. 

The United States Supreme Court upheld released time laws during the 1952 Zorach v. Clauson case which allowed a school district to have students leave school for part of the day to receive religious instruction.

State Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur, R-Ashtabula, questioned why this bill is needed if the law is already in place. 

“My experience has been that if the federal law requires it, school districts are usually very hesitant to violate federal law or federal practice,” she said during a recent committee hearing. “I’ve just wondered why you want to see that change also in the state law if it’s already required in practice.”

Click said he knows nearly a dozen school districts that have denied religious instruction programs like LifeWise Academy, an Ohio-based religious instruction program that teaches the Bible.

“I believe that when we clarify this language, it will make a more broad statement that this is not only constitutional and legal, but it is something that needs to be done in the state of Ohio to accommodate parents and their children,” Click said. 

LifeWise Academy

Click mentioned LifeWise Academy in his testimony. 

“(LifeWise founder) Joel Penton began to organize and create an efficient model that provided training for instructors, character-based bible curriculum, and a platform that is reliable and reputable for participating schools,” Click said. “…While this opportunity is not limited to LifeWise, they have formulated the model program for release time for religious instruction.”

LifeWise was founded in 2018, launched in two Ohio school districts in 2019 and today enrolls nearly 30,000 students across more than 12 states. The program will be in more than 170 Ohio school districts by next school year — more than a quarter of the state’s school districts.

LifeWise, which is non-denominational, supports the bill. 

“It gives parents the freedom to choose character-based religious instruction for their children during the school day, in accordance with Supreme Court rulings,” Penton, the founder of LifeWise, said in a statement. 

However, there has been pushback to LifeWise. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote a letter to more than 600 Ohio school districts urging them not to allow LifeWise from taking place in their district.

“Per its own words, LifeWise’s goal is clear: they seek to indoctrinate and convert public school students to evangelical Christianity by convincing public school districts to partner with them in bringing LifeWise released time bible classes to public school communities,” Lawrence said.

Online petitions against LifeWise have also sprung up before the program comes to a school district. 

Follow OCJ Reporter Megan Henry on X.


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