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Movement for Bible instruction for public school students builds

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (BP)–Although her local school board curtailed its experiment to give public school students an opportunity for off-site biblically based instruction, Ann Bennett is continuing her push for released time education.

Her motivation is the 14-year-old boy who accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior two years ago. His cousin had invited him to attend the final term in the pilot project at a Kingsport, Tenn., middle school.

“The last day of class he said, ‘I want to make an announcement. I’ve accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior,'” recalled Bennett, a member of Indian Springs Baptist Church. “I’ve never seen that happen in Sunday school, let alone in front of a public school class. This is the greatest home missions opportunity out there.”

After a new superintendent recommended the Sullivan County school board discontinue the one-hour, off-campus sessions, the mother of three took her fight to the state legislature.

A bill to authorize released time instruction statewide is pending in both branches of the Tennessee legislature. It was revised by a citizen group after a similar proposal last year was voted down in a subcommittee the day shooting erupted at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Similar legislation has been proposed this year in Alabama, part of a grassroots effort that supporters say will expand these classes nationwide.

Originating in 1914, released time education offers Bible classes and related subjects. These sessions, which must be conducted off campus, vary from 30 to 60 minutes. Some meet weekly, others once a month.

Although its constitutionality was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952, released time education sometimes faces an uphill battle.

Sullivan County’s board voted to scuttle the program after an atheist complained she should be allowed to offer classes in her beliefs, Bennett recounted. Last January, a school board in Lubbock, Texas, voted 6-1 against a proposal from a citizen-led group.

Despite these obstacles, supporters believe the movement is on the upswing.

“We hope we’re on the verge of an explosion,” said Dave Johnson of Knoxville, Tenn., a missionary with CBM Ministries who oversees programs in three Tennessee counties. “People are so frustrated with the lack of religious instruction in public schools they want to do something. Most school boards don’t know about it and are afraid to take the first step.”

The executive director of a new, national association promoting released time education said programs have sprung up this year in California, Oklahoma and South Carolina. In addition, he has received requests for information from several other states.

Bob Entner of the BEST (Bible Education in School Time) Network said whenever his group publicizes its efforts, many parents ask, “Why can’t we do this in our community?”

“We’re real encouraged,” Entner said. “This is a wonderful way of reaching thousands of kids and it’s very efficient. You can teach the same lesson to students in different areas.”

Formed by half a dozen groups involved in Bible-based ministries, the network will hold its first national conference Oct. 11-12 in Ontario, Calif. Paul Cedar of Mission America — which organized the Lighthouses of Prayer movement — will be the keynote speaker.

Entner said the meeting will serve as BEST’s kickoff. He said its purpose is to organize groups around the nation into a cohesive, unified voice. The network’s Internet site is www.mediassoc.com/bestnet/index.htm.

Released time programs have been such a grassroots effort that leaders aren’t even sure how many students are enrolled, he said.

Although the commonly accepted estimate is 250,000, Entner said that may be too low. He knows of 17,000 students from one Catholic archdiocese in New York and said there are Jewish and Mormon groups who probably aren’t counted.

Even organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship don’t maintain a nationwide count of pupils, he said.

His group is currently working to raise funds for research to verify enrollment statistics.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Entner said. “A lot of these programs are run by volunteer, stay-at-home moms and senior citizens. That’s why we feel it’s important to have a national organization to link them together and give them encouragement.”

Bennett calls the new organization a significant step, saying it will provide more help for groups like the Sullivan County Released Time Committee (on the Internet at www.isbc.org).

Bennett and a network of Christians from Memphis spearheaded the move for statewide legislation.

Prepared with the help of attorneys who have worked with other released time programs, the proposal requires at least three parents to request classes, with all funding and liability assumed by the instructional organization.

“We have a black Memphis sponsor in the House and a white rural senate sponsor, which reflects most released time programs,” Bennett said. “They’re in the inner city or rural areas. It meets resistance in the suburbs. They have the best schools and think they don’t need God.

“We always meet anti-Christian bigotry from people who don’t want the Bible taught,” she added. “But released time has been part of the school day since 1914. It was here before family life education, AIDS education or drug and alcohol education. Arguments against it are brought up by people who want total religious confinement.”

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s church-state agency, meanwhile, has called released time the best alternative for offering Bible instruction to public school students without church-state problems.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said recently that guidelines to offer “fair and impartial” instruction about the Bible in public schools will be a nightmare.

“Those with the best of motives who have been pushing teaching the Bible in public schools are going to hate the results when the lawyers and school administrators get through with it,” he said.

Under released time education, Land said, “a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim student [can] be ‘released’ during … to be instructed in his understanding of the Bible by a qualified, religious teacher from his faith perspective under a syllabus worked out jointly between representatives of that faith tradition and the public-school officials.”

In addition to the BEST Network website, additional information about released time resources can be found at the National Bible Association’s www.releasedtime.org website.

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker