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.
"Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the (school) — its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained and its glorious principles of morality inculcated?" asked the Justice rhetorically. "What is there to prevent a work, not sectarian, upon the general evidences of Christianity, from being read and taught in the college by lay teachers?"
Of course, having the Bible in schools throughout the 19th century did not happen without controversy.
Use of the King James Version of the Bible caused the largest conflicts during the mid-19th century — some of which resulted in violence, murder and Catholic church burnings. "What prompted this violent conflict?" asks Bruce Dorsey of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in an article titled "Freedom of Religion: Bibles, Public Schools and Philadelphia's Bloody Riots of 1844." "In short, it was provoked by a bitter controversy over Bible reading in the public schools."
Despite bitter battles, it wasn't until 1869 that Catholics won their first major legal battle in having Bible readings eliminated from public schools. "The Cincinnati Board of Education (in August of 1869) had just exiled the Bible from schools because it put Catholic children at a disadvantage," according to Deborah Rieselman's article"The Cincinnati Bible War" published in UC Magazine. "After all, the Roman Catholic and Protestant versions of the Bible differ not only in text, but in the number of books included. It's not clear what precipitated the decision, but Catholic leaders such as Archbishop John Purcell had long complained that public school boards should help finance the Catholic schools to give children an alternative. The request wasn't as outrageous as it sounds today."
Catholics and other groups continued to push for an end to Bibles in public schools throughout the 19th century — but as they made headway, they also made some bitter Protestant enemies. Indeed, Rev. Richard Harcourt's anti-Catholic lectures were filled beyond capacity, according to William J. Reese's book, and the Reverend Harcourt's, "Conspiracy: The American Public Schools," (published in 1890) accused the Vatican of conceiving various plots to destroy the public education in the United States. But, it still wasn't for another two decades that America began released time programs in earnest.
Consequently, in 1912 the LDS Granite High School released time seminary opened in Utah. Also, in 1914 the first Christian Bible released time program was established in Gary, Ind. Both of these programs were among the first off-campus religious released time programs in America.
These programs continued to grow until "released time peaked in 1947 with 2 million students enrolled in 2,200 communities," according to School Ministries.
Five years after its apex, the Supreme Court decided in Zorach v. Caluson that released time programs could continue to meet off campus during school hours. Today, with participants in released time programs all across the country of various religious affiliations, states and districts have specific rules for regulating these programs in accordance with the federal law.
New York's statute, for example, only allows students to be released for an hour or less a week during school hours; whereas, Wisconsin law states that students who participate in released time must have at least 60 minutes but no more than 180 minutes per session of religious instruction.
South Carolina allows high schoolers to count released time instruction as elective credit.
Utah has one of the longest state codes regarding released time. It includes 11 different standards. For example, public schools cannot keep records of attendance at released time classes, and public school publications cannot include pictures, reports or records regarding released time classes.
Of course, with the growth of released time comes added scrutiny. Over the years, various legal battles have arisen about whether religious released time violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
In the late 90s, Nancy Moore with the Humanists of Utah, wrote a piece challenging the released time program in Utah's public schools.
She complained that schools were too involved in released time seminary, telling anecdotes of counselors who believed they were advocates for the LDS church and students who were pressured into attending and were scorned if they chose not to attend.
"The public school's excessive entanglement with so-called release time must cease," Moore wrote, "not only because it creates an environment of group favoritism, which causes human suffering, resentment and divisiveness, but it coerces state employees to work on behalf of religion, a fact which some feel treads on their freedom of conscience."
Similarly, earlier this year, South Carolina schools won a major lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which challenged whether public schools could offer off-campus religious classes as electives for school credit. While the court upheld the state's public schools right to offer credit for off-campus religious electives, the case was appealed and is now headed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Though release time religious classes are still a topic of debate, many participants are grateful for these programs that allow their students to get a religious education while attending a publicly funded school.
"There is a tension for many parents who want their kids to receive some Bible-based education, who can't afford private schools and prefer to not home-school their children," said Breivik, executive director of School Ministries. "What released time Bible study does is relieve this tension for parents and allows them to have it both ways — their children receive religious education while receiving all the benefits of a public school education."
And Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the board at the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, believes these kinds of programs are indicative of the American people.
"Our Founding Fathers knew that a relationship with God is important," Hecht said. "Our dollar bill says 'In God We Trust,' many courthouses have 'In God We Trust,' presidents take their oaths on a Bible. We believe in the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion."
Back in Ontario, Calif., school officials are grateful for the efforts Genny Madison and her fellow members in the California Released Time Christian Education program have made.
"As a Christian woman, the Released Time Christian Education program is what I consider to be one of the most effective ways to bring about positive society and community changes — by spiritual education of the world's future leaders — our youth," said Lowanna Owens, a school official in Ontario, Calif.
The students seem just as satisfied. Anthony, a fourth-grader in California, wrote in a thank-you note to his release time teacher, "When it is Thursday, I look forward to coming to the trailer to learn about Jesus. I like the songs and the other things that we learn and do. When I am 80 years old, I will still remember my time in Released Time Christian Education."