Bible Studies on School Time, but Not on School Grounds

Article excerpt

One of the courses that has meant the most to John Ray, a public high school senior in this Georgia mountain town, isn't math or English, but one on God and the Bible.

To take it, Mr. Ray needs his parent's written permission. But he's eager to go to the small off-campus classroom each day because it helps him with difficult issues in his life. At fifteen years old, "I {learned} I was going to be a father," Ray says. The course "helped guide me."

Called a released-time program, because students leave school to attend, the course provides an example of how religion and public education quietly coexist here and across the country at a time of emotional debate over prayer in the classroom. Efforts to make religion a fourth 'R' have grown in recent years as parents, politicians, and preachers grasp for solutions to what they say is a decline in morals and values, evidenced in part by high teen-pregnancy rates, a rise in one-parent families, and growing youth violence. Two years ago, House Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer. Some states, including Georgia, have instituted moment-of-silence policies. Now released-time programs, around since 1914, are experiencing a mini resurgence too. "Communities are seeing that something has got to be done. The at-risk behavior has just gone off the chart in the last 30 years," says Grayson Hartgrove, a businessman who has helped start three released-time programs in South Carolina this fall and hopes to have 11 more running this spring. Released-time programs provide religious education to public-school students during the school day. The caveats are that the programs be taught off campus, require parental permission, are privately funded, are offered as an elective, and are not promoted by the schools. A 1993 survey by the National Association of Released Time Christian Education (NARTCE) found 250,000 students from California to Maine participated in Christian released-time. But other religions - from Judaism to Islam - also have programs. In Utah and Idaho, thousands of students attend released-time classes sponsored by the Mormon Church. Released-time programs were started in 1914 by an Indiana elementary school superintendent, and other grade schools copied the idea. In 1948 the Supreme Court ruled the courses couldn't operate on school grounds or use public funds, and many programs disbanded, believing the court ruled them unconstitutional. Four years later, the high court set the ground rules for released-time, mandating the programs could be offered as long as they are privately funded and are held off campus. "As long as schools dot their i's and cross their t's, and don't do anything that encourages the practice of religion, this is a reasonable way to accommodate the religious needs of parents and students," says Denny Lee, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. Today, released-time programs are growing mainly in rural areas, particularly in Washington, Oregon, and South Carolina. Urban resistance "In suburban/urban districts it's harder to get those kind of programs in," says John Atkinson, president the Long Beach, Calif. …