School’s Out—For Bible Lessons

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Discover this hidden, legal opportunity you may be
missing to reach kids in your community.

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It’s 10 in the morning in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, or
California. School doors suddenly swing open, and exuberant
children spill out to skip their way down a sidewalk to a nearby
building or hop aboard a waiting bus for a quick ride to a quiet
church.

Minutes later, they scurry into a church. Jennifer hurries
excitedly across the room to tell an adult that today she can say
all three of her Bible verses without any help. Jason, timid as
always, flashes his teacher the first small smile she’s seen in
weeks. When she asks what he’s happy about, he shares that his
father is back with the family again. As the children find chairs,
the teacher notices that Annette looks a little sad. Is she feeling
ill, or is her mother not doing well again?
•••
This scene occurs hundreds of times every school day across the
United States. Children from kindergarten through 12th grade leave
their public-school classrooms for off-school sites where they
receive “released time” religious instruction. All that’s required
is a signed statement of permission from the child’s parent.

Released time, a largely untapped provision for reaching public
school children with the gospel, isn’t a new idea. In 1914, William
Wirt of Gary, Indiana, came up with a plan for off-campus religious
education, and more than 600 students attended. Some 50 years ago,
the Supreme Court upheld the released-time concept in a court case.
The case the court heard, Zorach v. Clauson, dealt specifically
with the legality of the program. The court’s only stipulations
were that instructors hold classes off school grounds and use no
public funds. Despite swirling church-state issues in years since,
that decision stands today.

An accurate interpretation of the law is “schools have the
discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious
instruction, provided that schools don’t encourage or discourage
participation or penalize those who don’t attend. Schools may not
allow religious instruction by outsiders on premises during the
school day.” (State laws do vary. Go to www
.releasedtime.org
and click on your state to learn more.)

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A number of long-standing released-time programs survive today
with over 250,000 participating students. For example, the
released-time program in Oakland, California, has been in
continuous existence since 1943. Today, it serves 11 schools. CBM
Ministries of South Central Pennsylvania, Inc., released-time
sponsor for more than 35 years, currently conducts classes in 64
schools, in 10 counties, with 1,100 volunteers. Our vision is a
released-time program in each county of Pennsylvania by 2005 and in
every school district of the state by 2010.

MEETING NEEDS
Why the fresh interest in released time? School personnel are
scrambling for answers to issues such as bullying, truancy, and a
lack of respect for authorities. Released-time programs seem to be
working, and many schools are glad for the positive influence. It
seems that school officials are admitting that Christians have some
good solutions, and released time is the means they use to instill
values in students.

The need is huge. Researchers estimate that of the 53 million
children in the United States, at least half are unchurched. A
recent survey of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, revealed that only
17 percent of the county’s residents attend a religious service on
a given Sunday. Given that this county is in a traditional, Bible
Belt area known for its strong Amish subculture, church attendance
may be even more dismal in other parts of the country. Parents,
pressed by other commitments and stressed by circumstances all week
long, simply don’t take their families to church. These same
parents, though, when offered the option for religious education
during the school day, often enroll their children.

We know we must reach them while they’re young; a high percentage
of commitments to Christ come between the ages of 4 and 14. For
seven hours each day, this age group is assembled in the public
schools of our nation. And they’re available to us.

GETTING STARTED
“Okay, I’m convinced. What do I need to do?” It’s possible to
implement a released-time program in your community. The following
guidelines present the overall picture; released-time organizations
will gladly help with details.

Pray. Ask for God’s help and gather other prayer partners. Pray
specifically for open doors and good relations with your local
schools. Pray that God will raise up the volunteers you’ll need to
pull this off.

Do good public relations. Talk up this program every chance you
get. Share the vision with moms, dads, grandparents, pastors,
teachers, friends, and others. Explain the potential benefits to
children, families, schools, your church, and your community.

Prepare. Gather data you need to get things rolling. Call your
local school districts and ask for the superintendents’ and
principals’ names, direct phone numbers, and email addresses. Many
school districts have Web sites where this information is publicly
available.
     

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