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 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.

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