Skipping school with your Bible: Religion released time classes growing in popularity

Published: Saturday, Aug. 13 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Dawn Goates-Crus poses for a photo in her home in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 12, 2011. She learned her lessons in previous market changes and is not too concerned with the current market changes.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

ONTARIO, Calif. — Six boys wiggled in their seats, waiting for their released time Bible class to begin. They had been wrestling with a serious theological question.

"Teacher," one boy started, finally mustering up enough courage to ask, "if God made us all, well then who made God?"

All Genny Madison could do was smile and explain that some things are mysteries.

"The great thing about that question," said Madison, a longtime member of the California Released Time Christian Education program, "is how it highlights just how thirsty these kids are to learn and think about the Bible."

Over the last several years, programs allowing students to leave during school to take a religious class off campus are growing.

Just last week in Utah, two separate religious groups expressed interest in purchasing a plot of land adjacent to a new high school being built in Draper for a religious released time building.

One of the institutions, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has nearly 120,000 students nationwide in released time programs and approximately 85,000 in Utah. The other group, Summum, a Salt Lake City-based religion started in 1975, is interested in establishing its first released time program with the potential purchase of this land.

Though some have questioned Summum's intentions based on its involvement in a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case — which challenged local communities for not allowing them to display their Seven Aphorisms next to the Ten Commandments in public areas — Summum's lawyer, Brian Barnard, said the organization's sole interest in purchasing the land is to start its own seminary program.

But Utah is not the only state that is expanding its released time offerings.

School Ministries, a released time Bible study organization based in South Carolina, has programs in four other states and has grown 18 percent in enrollment over the past five years. It also plans to expand to another state this coming year.

Likewise, the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, another religious released time program based in New York City, reported an anticipated growth of 13 percent over the next school year.

"Bible released time is one of the few legal means for people to have free exercise of religion and still fully participate in public schools," said Kenneth Breivik, executive director of School Ministries.

Justice William O. Douglas articulated similar sentiments in the Supreme Court's 1952 case Zorach v. Clauson — setting the legal precedent that governs religious released time today.

"We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a supreme being," Justice Douglas wrote in the court's landmark decision. "When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events … it then follows the best of our traditions, for it then respects the religious nature of our people."

In fact, the "religious nature of our people" was quite clearly manifest in early public schools in the United States.

Bible study in public schools

Early American schools often used Bibles as "readers" (the predecessor to the textbook). Even the first known textbooks "included excerpts from the Bible such as the Sermon on the Mount," according to William J. Reese, author of "America's Public Schools: From the Common School to 'No Child Left Behind.' "

In the 1844 Supreme Court case Vidal v. Girard's Executors, Justice Story's decision shows the general reverence for Bible instruction in public schools during the era.

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