LifeWise Academy is Bringing God to Public Schools

LifeWise Academy is permitted under a pair of little-known, decades-old U.S. Supreme Court rulings that allow for off-campus religious instruction during school hours.


by Mike Hixenbaugh, NBCNews.com, April 2, 2024
 

WHITEHALL, Ohio — After a morning lesson on multiplying fractions, about half of the students in a fifth-grade class at Etna Road Elementary School packed up their work and headed to the campus library.

The other half, all wearing matching red T-shirts, put on their coats, lined up single-file and boarded a red bus with the words “LifeWise Academy” painted on the side.

While their classmates back at school browsed shelves of books, the children on the bus sang praise to Jesus.

“For there is no other name ... by which we must be saved.”

The students soon arrived at a church a half-mile away where, for the next 30 minutes, they would pray, read the Bible and sing worship songs — activities that have become a routine part of their week thanks to an Ohio-based nonprofit on a mission to put God back in the public school day.

LifeWise Academy is permitted under a pair of little-known, decades-old U.S. Supreme Court rulings that allow for off-campus religious instruction during school hours.

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When LifeWise launched in 2018, the initial goal was to serve 25 schools by 2025, but it surpassed that long ago. By the start of this year, LifeWise had set up chapters in more than 300 schools in a dozen states, teaching 35,000 public school students weekly Bible lessons that are usually scheduled to coincide with lunch or noncore courses such as library, art or gym class.

LifeWise has won support from conservatives on the front lines of the new culture wars over LGBTQ inclusion, sexually explicit library books and the role of racism in American history. But it also has a growing foothold in some progressive suburbs and cities, including deep-blue Columbus, Ohio.

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Its explosive growth has been celebrated by Christian groups and parents who’ve long decried the removal of religion from America’s classrooms — and denounced by those who believe there should be a hard line between religion and public education.

Supporters say LifeWise, which teaches children character development through Bible lessons, complies with the separation of church and state. Public schools are not allowed to directly promote or fund the program, which is offered free to students whose parents sign permission slips.

“A lot of parents want to be able to say to their child, ‘Yeah, you’re going to get science class, you’re going to get math class, you’re going to get English class — and you’re going to have Bible class, too, because this is important to us as a family,’” said LifeWise founder and former Ohio State Buckeyes defensive lineman Joel Penton.

But parents and activists who’ve mobilized against LifeWise say that busing students to nearby churches, where they sometimes collect prizes and eat candy, has made some non-Christian children feel left out or pressured to attend.

“Whether it’s happening on campus or not, this program is bringing religion into the school,” said Demrie Alonzo, an English tutor who works at several schools with LifeWise programs in central Ohio. “It’s not fair to the kids of different religions.”

At a time when conservatives nationally are fighting what they portray as liberal indoctrination in schools, some parents and critics see the opposite playing out, accusing LifeWise of using schools to draw children into an evangelical faith tradition whose members overwhelmingly vote Republican.

Opponents have also documented several instances of teachers and administrators promoting LifeWise to students, either by allowing LifeWise volunteers to visit classrooms, hosting schoolwide assemblies or advertising the program in paperwork sent home to parents — actions that, according to some legal experts, could violate the First Amendment.

Penton said LifeWise follows all laws and local policies and avoids hot-button partisan topics in its curriculum, which is designed to guide students through the entire Bible in five years. He said LifeWise receives “very broad support” from groups with a range of political views. 

Last summer, LifeWise’s national teacher summit was sponsored by Patriot Mobile, a far-right Christian cellphone company that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting school board candidates promising to fight LGBTQ acceptance in schools.

And in December, Penton appeared on the Truth and Liberty Live Call-in Show hosted by a group whose mission is to reshape American society by advancing conservative Christian values in seven key “mountains” of public life — including media, government and education.

On the show, Penton lamented the referendum last year enshrining abortion rights in Ohio’s constitution, saying it made him “incredibly sad.” It also made him realize, he said, that LifeWise’s mission “is all the more important.”

“What other hope do we have,” Penton said, “but to inject the word of God into the hearts of the next generation?”
 

During school hours

Penton said most people are surprised when they learn that this type of program — known as release time religious education — is legal.

Supreme Court rulings in 1948 and 1952 established that public school students could receive religious instruction during the school day, so long as the classes took place off school property and the government did not promote or pay for it.

Release time programs cropped up across the country in the decades since — including in Utah and New York City — with Mormon and Jewish groups among the biggest users, said Steven K. Green, a professor of law and religious history at Willamette University.

“For the most part, these were mom-and-pop type operations,” Green said. “Locally oriented, locally run.”

LifeWise has super-charged the concept, he said, by using a franchise-style, “plug-and-play” model that allows local groups to easily start new chapters. Community volunteers raise money and find a church to host the classes; LifeWise provides everything else, from curriculum to paid teaching staff to background checks.

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“It’s just a matter of people becoming aware that this is really possible and then giving them the tools,” Penton said. “I think parents by and large have always wanted this as part of their kids’ education.”

LifeWise has had to seek school board approval in states and districts that did not already have release time policies on the books. Most of the time, school boards have voted to allow the program, Penton said. In districts that have refused, board members and administrators primarily cited concerns about disruptions to the school day.

Some GOP-controlled state legislatures recently have sought to expand access to off-campus religious instruction. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, signed a law this month requiring all public schools to accommodate programs like LifeWise. Ohio and Oklahoma lawmakers are considering similar measures.

Doug Shoemaker, director of partnerships and legal services at Whitehall City Schools, which includes Etna Road Elementary, said the district has a decades-old policy allowing for release time programs. LifeWise was the first religious group in recent memory to capitalize on it, he said.

“We don’t sell it or advocate for the program, but we also don’t disrupt or block the program,” Shoemaker said. “It’s a choice that parents have.”

The feature that most inspires opposition to LifeWise — the fact that it takes place during school hours — is also what Penton believes makes it special.

LifeWise has rejected requests by some school districts to schedule the program before or after school, the approach favored by most other religious clubs, because Penton said that would make it less accessible.

LifeWise put NBC News in touch with seven parents whose children participate. Several said they wanted their children to learn the Bible but wouldn’t have enrolled them in an after-school club. Some said they’ve noticed improvements in their children’s behavior since joining and learning about character traits such as gratitude, obedience and respect. 

“I have firsthand seen differences in my boys that I kind of never thought possible,” said Jessica Cappuzzello, who has two children who attend LifeWise in the New Albany-Plain Local School District outside Columbus.

The interest in LifeWise Academy has coincided with a surge in donations, according to the most recent publicly available tax filings. LifeWise Inc., the nonprofit that operates the program, brought in $6.5 million in the fiscal year ending in June 2023 — six times more than when it started in 2018.

Vincent Coleman, a former middle school principal, runs LifeWise’s programs in Columbus City Schools, where a majority of the nearly 500 students who participate are Black or Latino and come from disadvantaged homes. Coleman said LifeWise volunteers have helped children facing food insecurity, homelessness and mental health struggles.

Coleman said he was frustrated at times during his two decades as an administrator because he wasn’t permitted to openly share his faith when counseling children.

LifeWise, he said, fills that gap. 

“You can communicate to a kid that ‘Hey, your life matters. God loves you,’” Coleman said. “That’s a component that our kids need to hear.”

 
CLICK HERE TO READ MUCH MORE OF THIS STORY AT NBCNEW.COM



 

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