Religious education program wants to expand into Huber Heights schools

Group founded on separation of church and state opposes LifeWise program.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A Bible-based education program for elementary school students that’s growing in Ohio is now planning to expand to Huber Heights City School District.

Superintendent Jason Enix said he was approached by members of the local LifeWise steering committee this fall about its intent to implement the program in Huber Heights beginning during the 2024-2025 school year.

Enix said the program is likely to be introduced at Wright Brothers Elementary School to begin, with the potential to add additional schools as the program’s leaders outline the logistics of doing so.

The program’s critics feel it violates the separation of church and state and promotes evangelical Christianity.

According to LifeWise Academy’s website, the organization has a 10-step process to launching its program locally.

Steps 1 through 3 are classified as the “interest phase,” during which a list of signatures is gathered from community members, a “kickoff meeting” is held, and an “initial launch fee” of $500 is paid to LifeWise.

The next three steps involve forming a steering committee of three to nine members representing three or more churches, drafting a plan with a LifeWise coach to “set the course and prepare a proposal for school officials,” and obtaining school approval or acknowledgement.

Enix said HHCS has a board policy, enacted in 2007, that allows for released time religious programs off school grounds. As such, the district drafted a letter of acknowledgement to the steering committee, he said.

Enix said while such a program does not need additional board approval, the district’s policy aims to ensure there is no core education time loss.

“It says in our policy very clearly that students cannot miss any core instruction,” he said.

The final three steps in the LifeWise launch process include recruiting a team that consists of a director and volunteer board, training the team, and managing final details for implementation, the website says.

Enix stressed the district will not provide any support or resources to the program aside from facilitating the participating student’s release from school during the program’s scheduled time, specific details of which are still to be determined.

“My belief is that students who are part of that program, instead of going to art or music, would come to the office and the LifeWise person would be there (to transport) a clear list of kids,” Enix said, noting the LifeWise representative would not have access to the school past that point.

A representative for LifeWise could not be reached for comment for this story.

LifeWise programs are also in various stages of the process for Tipp City’s Nevin Coppock Elementary School and the Clark-Shawnee Local School District.

LifeWise Academy is a Bible education program geared toward public school students during school hours. The program operates via the concept of released time religious instruction, under which public school students may briefly leave school grounds during the school day to receive private religious education from private groups.

Supporters of the program say the academy is legal because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1952 in Zorach v. Clauson, as well as Ohio Revised Code 3313.6022, allowing a school district to let students leave the school for part of the day for religious instruction.

In a 2019 opinion on religious released time, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost supported the 1952 court decision, stating a school district board of education may adopt a policy permitting students to be released from school to attend a “released time course in religious instruction,” in accordance with the ORC section.

That opinion also further aims to clarify that schools generally may not prohibit students from inviting other students to join them at such programs (unless that student-to-student speech substantially interferes with schoolwork, etc.), that school employees may likewise use their free-speech rights to talk about such programs in their personal capacities, and more.

In August, the Freedom From Religion Foundation released a statement urging Ohio school districts “not to be pressured into allowing” released time for students to attend programs like LifeWise.

“Per its own words, LifeWise’s goal is clear: They seek to indoctrinate and convert public school students to evangelical Christianity by convincing public school districts to partner with them in bringing LifeWise released time bible classes to public school communities,” FFRF’s Sammi Lawrence wrote in a mass mailing to more than 600 Ohio school districts. “All too often, districts not only authorize LifeWise’s classes, but they proceed to inappropriately and unconstitutionally devote public resources to helping promote, organize and encourage student attendance at an overtly evangelical Christian bible study class.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation letter said the program also pressures students to take part, and those who do not take part often do not get substantive lessons while peers attend bible classes. Those who do attend also “miss valuable educational time,” the letter said.

In a Nov. 1, 2023 letter to an Ohio school district, Yost reaffirmed his stance of the legality of these programs and objected to the FFRF’s stance.

“Ohio law authorizes such programs and provides even more guidelines to ensure that constitutional standards are met, and more,” Yost writes.

Center for Christian Virtue President Aaron Baer released a statement last week in support of Yost’s letter.

“Once again, Attorney General Dave Yost is ensuring that Ohioans are not only free to live out their First Amendment rights, but are encouraged to do so,” Baer wrote.

LifeWise Academy is in 320 districts in 13 states.

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