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The alarm must be sounded: LifeWise Academy’s disturbingly rapid growth

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A photo of desks in a classroom
Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

Public schools continue to be a crucial battleground in the fight to protect the separation between state and church.

Religious organizations seeking to further erode the wall of separation know that weaseling their way into public schools is their best bet to indoctrinate children and push the boundaries of what the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause will allow. Release time bible classes are one tool that religious organizations turn to in order to get their foot into the schoolhouse door.

Disturbingly, one particular evangelical release time organization, LifeWise Academy, has been growing rapidly throughout the country, especially the Midwest. For those unfamiliar, LifeWise Academy is a release time bible study program that, according to its own website, seeks to provide “Bible-based character education to public school students” during regular school hours. The curriculum is “designed to take students through the entire Bible” over a period of five years, which requires students to miss roughly an hour of class each week for half a decade. LifeWise is created and run by Stand for Truth Ministry, a “Christian ministry that exists for one purpose, and one purpose only — to take the Gospel to students in America’s public schools.”

LifeWise began in Ohio in 2018 and has since grown at an alarming rate. Just last fall, FFRF sent a letter to all public school districts in Ohio urging them to comply with the First Amendment and avoid entangling themselves with LifeWise. Per its own words, LifeWise’s goal is clear: It seeks to indoctrinate and convert public school students to evangelical Christianity by convincing public school districts to partner with it in bringing LifeWise to schools and unconstitutionally promoting the program to students.

While FFRF has been sounding the alarm over LifeWise for a while, we’re grateful to see that major national news outlets such as NBC have begun digging deeper into LifeWise and the ways that release time programs cross the constitutional line:

[Life Wise’s] 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. …

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.

Unfortunately, U.S. Supreme Court precedent dating to the 1950s sanctions release time bible classes. Public schools may legally release students from school in order to attend private religious lessons. However, the school’s involvement in religious release time classes must begin and end with simply allowing students to leave the building and come back, with parental permission.

Under the First Amendment, public schools cannot legally promote release time classes such as LifeWise, schools cannot encourage students to attend, they can’t devote school resources to facilitating the classes, they can’t give release time representatives unique opportunities to recruit students, they must provide adequate instruction for any students who don’t attend the release time classes — and so on. In short, schools cannot violate the Constitution; yet, FFRF receives reports of schools doing just that.

For instance, FFRF took action last October after being informed that Fredericktown Local School District in Ohio permitted LifeWise representatives to come into its schools and give a presentation to students promoting LifeWise and recruiting children to attend. An elementary school principal personally led LifeWise representatives around the school and allowed the adults to speak to children in an effort to convince them to go to LifeWise. As NBC’s article mentions, our complainant even witnessed one LifeWise representative attempt to give a permission slip to a Hindu student. When our complainant stepped in and told the representative that the student isn’t Christian, LifeWise’s representative responded by telling the student that they needed Jesus.

We finally received a response last month from the district stating that it “reminded administrators to refrain from actions that could be viewed as promoting or discouraging participation in any religious release time program” and “reaffirmed its policies with the local LifeWise officials, including the prohibition of soliciting student participation during school hours or at school-sponsored events.”

Beyond constitutional issues, release time bible classes like LifeWise can lead to nonparticipating students feeling ostracized. LifeWise uses peer-to-peer proselytization tactics, meaning children are encouraged to tell their nonparticipating friends and classmates about how great LifeWise is and that they need to convince their parents to let them attend. Further, the organization often distributes red LifeWise T-shirts to participating students and asks students to wear the shirts on release time days, creating a clearly visible “in” group and “out” group. It doesn’t take a professional psychologist to see that these tactics can easily lead to nonparticipants being bullied and feeling left out, especially if the majority of their classmates are in LifeWise.

But, of course, peer pressure is a feature of this system, not a bug. Religious organizations know that young children are especially susceptible to peer pressure and have an intense need to fit in and be liked. Organizations like LifeWise bank on kids asking their parents for permission to attend once they see their peers skipping an hour of school every week.

As LifeWise continues its rapid and concerning growth, FFRF will continue to stand watch, ready to take action on reported constitutional violations. While LifeWise may be legal, public schools must still adhere to the Constitution and cannot stray outside the First Amendment’s boundaries. In order to preserve the wall of separation between state and church, organizations such as LifeWise must be kept in check.

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One Response

  1. I assume that you are aware of Lifewise’s connections to Patriot Mobile, the Heritage Foundation, and other far right organizations.

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