ELIZABETHTOWN — Released Time, a program that teaches the Bible to public school students, was established in Bladen County in 2011. Recent moves to expand the program, however, have created a stir.
“In the last month, we’ve (received) questions about Released Time,” Bladen County Board of Education Chairman Vincent Rozier said recently. “We’ve asked Jason (Williams) to speak and give us a refresher.”
“I get a lot of questions about Released Time and how it’s legal,” Williams began. “We have to go back to 1914 and school Superintendent William Wirt.”
The Gary, Indiana, superintendent proposed public elementary schools in his district should be closed one day a week so that parents could instruct children in religion. In the first years of the plan, more than 600 students participated in off-campus education, and the program expanded to other states and school districts.
Teaching religion was met with opposition, however, and in 1952, the case of Zorach v. Clauson had made its way to the Supreme Court. In the majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas wrote of a New York religious program taught off-campus that “involves neither religious instruction in public schools nor the expenditure of public funds” for religious purposes.
The Court’s opinion furthermore stated that any decision other than allowing off-campus programs like Released Time violated freedom of religion.
“We cannot (rule otherwise) … unless separation of church and state means that public institutions can make no adjustments of their schedules to accommodate the religious needs of the people. We cannot read into the Bill of Rights such a philosophy of hostility to religion.”
“That ruling was really a pivot point in history and the heritage for programs like this,” Williams told the board.
Today, approximately 1,000 released time programs are in operation, providing religious instruction to 250,000 students of every age and religion. The Church of Latter-Day Saints is one of the largest implementers of the practice, often constructing or leasing property adjacent to public schools for its Seminary program.
The national Christian organization School Ministries, Inc. was created in 1990 to assist local communities in the creation of Released Time Bible Education. In Bladen County, approval for the program by the Board of Education came in 2011, and the program now enrolls approximately 700 students per semester.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful, program that we have here in Bladen County,” Williams said after the meeting. “Our teaching method is to use the Bible to help kids learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ by teaching concepts such as faith, truth, salvation, obedience, etc. Our goal is to see students grow like Jesus as referenced in Luke 2:52. Therefore, we want them to be able to follow Christ with their mind (wisdom), and body (stature) so they can please God through Jesus and learn to help others.”
Bladen County Released Time is a voluntary program that uses no tax dollars, is conducted off-campus, and requires parental permission.
“It’s completely funded and supported by individuals and churches in the community,” Williams informed the Board.
The 60 volunteers who provide Bible instruction have been run through a rigorous vetting process and background check and receive ongoing support and training from School Ministries, Inc.
Students who voluntarily participate in the program are taken off campus on buses owned and operated by Bladen County Released Time and covered with general liability, student accident, and auto insurance.
At the off-site locations, students are taught biblical principles through engagement with a lesson, prayer, and even worship at some of the locations.
“We’ve heard reports from one principal who shared he saw a decrease in behavioral problems and an increase in morals,” Williams told the board. “We believe that’s a part of the benefit of having this.”
The program is currently in 10 schools in Bladen County, and leaders are hoping to soon expand to the final school in which it is allowable.
“Do you have plans to go to the high schools?” questioned Alan West.
“We would love to be in the high schools … but North Carolina law isn’t there yet,” Williams responded. “Places like Georgia, California, Ohio, and South Carolina are doing it, and we hope to see that here.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.