School board member Tony Norman, who described himself as “an old Sunday School teacher,” said he was very impressed after observing Sterchi Hills’ Bible Release Time program. While the board member described it as “an amazing experience,” he admitted he couldn’t see around the fact that students whose parents don’t give permission to attend the program will be negatively impacted.
Several others (board members and community members alike) argued that the state law allows for programs such as this and that parents have the right to decide whether or not their children can participate.
Norman also raised the question of why the program couldn’t be held after school. In November, board member Owen says she was told by the church that the issue was transportation.
Is Bible Release Time Legal?
A 1952 Supreme Court case, Zorach v. Clauson, set the legal precedent for a program such as this to be offered in public schools. That ruling determined that children could be excused from school to attend religious instruction as long as three guidelines are followed: the children must have written permission from their parents; the instruction must take place off school grounds; and no government funds can be used to financially support the instruction.
According to Knox News, the state of Tennessee has additional requirements for such release time programs. In 2015, the state passed a law stating that in addition to the stipulations listed in the Supreme Court ruling, students also cannot miss more than one class period per school day, they have to make up missed schoolwork, and they cannot miss instruction time in which the subject matter is on state or federal standardized tests. Additionally, the consent form parents sign to allow their children to participate must include a disclaimer that says the school does not endorse the program, and the churches providing the courses must keep attendance records.
On their website, the Elgin Foundation says they have been partnering with local churches to facilitate the Bible Release Time since 2015 in the Southern Appalachian area. As of 2018, an Elgin Foundation program operates in 47 schools across three states (Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee) with an average attendance of over 5,500 students.
Release Time programs started in 1914 in Gary, Indiana when the superintendent of the school district, Dr. William Wirt, established a program. Dr. Wirt was convinced children needed the support of the church and Bible instruction to flourish.
The Knox County School Board is scheduled to vote on the program on Wednesday, December 11, 2019.