By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
In 2015, Tennessee legislators passed a state law that authorized local school boards across the state to put policies in place allowing students to be excused during the school day to attend a class in “religious moral instruction.”
The freedom to have release time for biblical or moral instruction actually has occurred for more than a century and possibly longer. It was contested in 1952 and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bible Release Time (Zorach versus Clauson, 343 U.S. 306).
On paper, it sounds great. What could go wrong in allowing students to go, in most cases, to a church where they can learn about the Bible and God’s Word?
Nothing, as long as Christians understand that the law applies to other religions as well, even those religions that have nothing to do with Jesus and the Bible.
While there have been some school districts in Tennessee that have approved the Bible Release Time program, it is estimated that 400,000 participate in similar programs across the nation.
The school board in Knox County has not approved the program but they did approve a pilot program earlier this year at Sterchi Elementary School in Knoxville, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
The paper reported that about 70 students from Sterchi Elementary travel to The Church at Sterchi Hills, a congregation affiliated with Knox County Association of Baptists and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, for a Bible lesson. The pilot program is limited to once a month during the fall semester.
Pastor Joel Dew of The Church at Sterchi Hills said the Bible Release Time program has gone extremely well so far. He noted that though state law allows them to do the program once a week, they only suggested one class period per month.
The decision has caused some anxiety in Knox County. As one would expect, some folks are clamoring that it violates church and state or that it is trying to indoctrinate children with a specific religion while others are supportive.
Last week, a group calling themselves the Satanic Children’s Ministry of Knoxville announced plans for a pilot release program that would provide “equal opportunity for children who do not wish to participate in studying the Bible.”
In an interview, Dew noted that he felt it was a “scare tactic” to keep the Knox County school board from adopting the Bible Release Time program countywide and to steer other Christians from supporting the program.
By the same token, Dew also understands that any religion, including Hindus, Muslims or Mormons, could take advantage of the state law. “We live in a country that believes in freedom of speech,” he said, adding that Christians cannot “allow ourselves to shut down because someone else has a voice.”
Instead, “as Christians, we are to shine a light in the darkness. We see Bible Release Time as a great tool for the church,” he said.
Dew noted that any organization that attempts a similar program would have to follow the same guidelines in the state law that The Church at Sterchi Hills follows. Among them:
- Students can miss no more than 60 minutes per school week.
- Parents/guardians must sign a written consent form before participation in the released time course.
- The course cannot be on school property and the school does not provide transportation.
- The entity providing the course maintains attendance records and makes them available to the school.
- The entity assumes liability for the students until they are returned to the school.
- No public funds are used.
- Students assume responsibility for missed school work.
Dew said the Knoxville school board is scheduled to vote on the proposal to continue the Bible Release Time program for the church on Nov. 20. He asked Tennessee Baptists to pray that the church moves forward in what God has called them to do and for God to place a hedge of protection around His people and that the church continues to demonstrate His love through it all.
We, as Baptists and Christians, can’t “shut down” because we “fear” what other religions or groups will do. We are to be salt and light to a dark world.
And, despite what others claim, Christians are the only ones who can truly proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.