Ohio law would require time off for religious education

This article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal.

Two Republican lawmakers are seeking to strengthen an existing law in Ohio by requiring — rather than just allowing — school districts to create a policy that allows students to be excused from school to take religious classes on their own time .

State Rep. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield and Gary ClickR-Vickery, recently introduced House Bill 445 and has had one hearing so far in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee.

“The connection between religious education, schools and good government is enshrined in our Constitution,” Click said in his written testimony. “You will note that HB 445 does not specify religion, but merely recognizes the opportunity for religious education. This opportunity is open to all faiths.”

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May vs. should

Ohio law currently allows school district boards of education to adopt a policy allowing students to take a time-limited religious education course.

HB 445 would require school districts to establish a policy and change the language of existing law in the Ohio Revised Code from “may” to “shall.”

“While many schools have taken advantage of the law’s permissive language, some school boards have been less forthcoming,” Click said. “Regardless of their intentions, their failure to implement sound policy on this matter results in the denial of both students and parents of the constitutional right to free exercise of religion.”

Cutrona agreed to be his co-sponsor.

“Words have meaning and they really matter,” he said. “So the difference between a little word like ‘may’ and ‘should’ can make all the difference in the world.”

Time-limited religious education must meet three criteria that would remain the same under the bill: the courses must take place off-site, be privately funded, and the students must have parental permission.

The United States Supreme Court affirmed in Zorach v. Clauson in 1952 passed work-hour exemption laws that allowed a school district to have students leave school for part of the day to receive religious instruction.

State Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur, R-Ashtabula, asked why this bill was needed when the law was already in effect.

“It has been my experience that when federal law requires it, school districts tend to be very reluctant to violate federal law or federal practices,” she said during a recent committee hearing. “I was just wondering why you would want to see this change in state law when it is already required in practice.”

Click said he knows of nearly a dozen school districts that have rejected religious education programs such as LifeWise Academy, an Ohio-based religious education program that teaches the Bible.

“I believe that if we clarify that language, it will make a broader statement that not only is this constitutional and legal, but that this needs to be done in the state of Ohio to accommodate parents and their children,” Click said.

LifeWise Academy

Click mentioned LifeWise Academy in his statement.

“(LifeWise founder) Joel Penton began to organize and create an efficient model that provided training for instructors, a character-based Bible curriculum and a platform that was reliable and reputable for participating schools,” Click said. “…Although this opportunity is not limited to LifeWise, they have formulated the model program for time off for religious education.”

Founded in 2018, LifeWise launched in two Ohio school districts in 2019 and now serves nearly 30,000 students in more than 12 states. The program will be available in more than 170 school districts in Ohio – more than a quarter of the state’s school districts – by next school year.

LifeWise, a non-denominational company, supports the bill.

“It gives parents the freedom to choose character-based religious instruction for their children during the school day, consistent with Supreme Court rulings,” Penton, the LifeWise founder, said in a statement.

However, there was resistance to LifeWise.

Sammi Lawrence, legal fellow at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote a letter to more than 600 school districts in Ohio urging them not to allow LifeWise to operate in their district.

“In their own words, LifeWise's goal is clear: to indoctrinate and convert public school students to evangelical Christianity by convincing public school districts to partner with them and offer LifeWise Bible classes in public school communities,” Lawrence said.

Online petitions have also surfaced against LifeWise before the program arrives in a school district.

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Anna Harden

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