A public school district board in Tennessee has voted down a proposed “Bible Release Time” program. The program, which was tested this year at an elementary school in the district, allowed for students to be excused from school for one hour a month to attend a religious program at a neighboring church.
“I don’t understand why we are discussing taking away instruction if we are really supporting public school students,” board member Jennifer Owen said during a meeting of the school board Wednesday evening. Owen’s statements articulated the opposition’s position the most succinctly. She made the argument that while the board members may not be opposed in any way to the actual program and what it is teaching students, what they oppose is students missing valuable class time and teachers having to alter their lesson plans because of it. In fact, another board member echoed Owen’s point by saying that while the proposal had garnered the nickname Bible Release Time, it was essentially a release time proposal, and wasn’t inherently attached to the Bible or any particular religion.
Owen articulated the argument that perhaps in some subjects it is more manageable to have students make up class work, but in classes like music and art (which the release time program would affect), where the coursework may depend on the student participating in a group exercise (for instance, singing in a choir or practicing a play), this may not be feasible.
Owen said she has been receiving objections to the proposed plan from parents and teachers since August. Since November, Owen said she’s received 165 emails about it. Only 46 of those emails have been in favor of the plan. Owen said after analyzing the comments coming from parents and teachers alike, she realized that those who wrote in favor of the plan were merely in favor of the actual program at the church while those against the plan were against the school board making a policy that allowed for the release of children during the school day.
Additionally, Owen said she also talked to many teachers whose instruction time was affected by the pilot program at Sterchi Elementary. These teachers were simply told what was going to happen and didn’t get a chance to “buy in” to the idea beforehand, Owen emphasized. During the meeting Wednesday night, teachers were also allowed to voice their concerns during the public forum part of the evening. One teacher expressed the difficulties of managing a music class with only a few students and the burden such an arrangement places on the teacher to help absent students make up the coursework.
Several parents gave their reasons for supporting the program. “This program allows my children to build a community, it allows them to praise God, to sing and worship God, and to learn God’s Word,” said Ashley Rickels, whose children attend Sterchi Elementary and participated in the pilot program. “This is an hour of hope for my children. We live in a secular world with rising rates of childhood anxiety and depression. This is a tool to combat that.”
The Christian nonprofit, Elgin Foundation, helped facilitate Sterchi’s pilot program. Tim Rogers, the president of Elgin, spoke at the meeting, reminding the board that the Supreme Court has already decided a program such as this is permissible. He also noted that a vote against the policy was akin to an endorsement of atheism.
After last week’s heated public debate, the proposed bill was revised to include the stipulations that the religious classes be offered on the same day at the same time (to minimize class disruption). The bill was also revised to stipulate that the churches offering the program have liability insurance and that they conduct background checks on those interacting with children.
Ultimately, the board voted 5-4 against the policy.