This fall, thousands of students are quietly leaving their public-school classrooms each week to receive religious instruction, becoming part of a growing movement nationwide.
The National Association for Released Time Christian Education (NARTCE) believes the movement reflects a growing uncertainty among students and parents over the decline of morality in public education. Last year, a study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics revealed that, among those surveyed, 61 percent of high-school students and 32 percent of college students admitted to cheating on recent exams.
Roger Blankenship, the executive director of the Georgia-based NARTCE until recently taking a post at Scripture Union, says released-time programs are set up legally to permit students to leave during school hours to attend Bible studies or religious-education classes.
Founded ten years ago, NARTCE's strength is in its numbers: 250,000 public-school students in 30 states participated in the programs during 1993. Of those students, 60 percent were unchurched. Under the program, elementary, junior-high, and high-school students, once parental consent is secured, leave classes at least once a week. "At least 115,000 kids in this country heard the gospel who might not otherwise have heard it," Blankenship says.
Students are instructed with course material from many sources. For elementary-age children, the Missouri-based Child Evangelism Fellowship and Scripture Union are among the organizations providing basic Bible-study lessons. Secondary students can work through David Nobel's "Understanding the Times" or the Caleb Campaign's historical literature. They also learn Bible-study techniques and discuss subjects such as creationism, the relevance of the Old Testament, current issues from a biblical perspective, and how to develop a Christian world-view.
Volunteer teachers conduct the classes in whatever facility is available off school grounds, including church buildings, homes, community centers, converted restaurants, even make-shift buses that become classes on wheels.
GRATEFUL SCHOOL PERSONNEL
Denver East High principal Pia Smith, who will see a released-time class start this winter at the church across the street, believes the program will be a positive influence on her urban, streetwise students.
The program has made believers of other professional educators. One public-school teacher told the NARTCE staff: "Your job makes mine easier." Another teacher said: "The Christian teaching in the classes touches and enriches students' lives in ways that the public school has difficulty doing."
School administrators are viewing released time as an important alternative to addressing moral and social problems. Ben Arp is superintendent of Gilmer County School District in Georgia, where 200 of 2,800 students attend the NARTCE-sponsored Christian Learning Center next door to the high school.
Arp acknowledges that while released time will not address all the woes of public education, it is a valuable part of the solution. "Kids who go receive a very positive learning experience," Arp says. "It provides another positive adult role model and that carries back in attitude at the schools."
Arp reports that his teachers view the adult volunteers with respect, almost as extended faculty members who provide emotional assistance and spiritual guidance to the students. Similar programs have been met with success in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee.
NARTCE's advocates believe that children who choose to participate in religious education become healthier students. "We're beginning to call ourselves a paraschool ministry," Blankenship says. "[Public educators] feel their hands are tied when dealing with moral education. So we show them with kindness that there is an alternative."
This fall, NARTCE has teamed up with the 100-year-old Scripture Union to form Schools Ministry USA, with the ambitious goal of making released-time programs available in every public-school district in the United States. The association will continue to function as a support service for existing programs.
Released-time programs have been tested in the courts and emerged unscathed. According to John W. Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, "The program has had a special institutional niche carved out in more than forty years of court decisions." Whitehead, in his book The Rights of Religious Persons in Public Education, cites 1952's Zorach v. Clauson as precedent.
The case involved the New York City school board, which had permitted schools to release students-primarily Jewish-during the school day to attend religious instruction off school premises. The Supreme Court declared that such a program was indeed constitutional. Justice William O. Douglas concluded that Americans are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a "supreme being," and consequently, the freedom to worship as one chooses must be guaranteed.
Such legal precedent has averted any formal complaints by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union or People for the American Way. Because Jews, Mormons, and Catholics have been participating in released-time religious education for more than 40 years, NARTCE also has been left alone.
NARTCE claims its goals are not to infiltrate public schools with Christian propaganda or to enforce strictly a legal place for Christian education. "We just want to give the children of America an opportunity to hear the gospel and respond to it," Blankenship says. "Even unreligious parents want their kids to get religious education."
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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