Portage County schools likely to reject religious programs on offer from private Christian organization

A still from a video on the LifeWise Academy website depicts how children would be shuttled away from school grounds for religious instruction. Image via LifeWise Academy

LifeWise Academy, a Hilliard-based organization, wants to offer local public school students what it calls “Bible-based character education” during the regular school day, but local school leaders aren’t all on board.

With parental permission, students would leave school during the school day, board a LifeWise Academy bus and be driven to a private off-site location where they would receive religious instruction.

“The focus of LifeWise is to provide the gospel to public school students and seek out every opportunity to connect students and their families to the broader ministry of local churches,” LifeWise Director of Advancement Kurt Snedecor wrote in an email to Portage County pastors and church leaders.

Snedecor invited the church leaders to an Aug. 29 closed-to-press roundtable with local leaders and the faith community. Attending the meeting at Streetsboro’s St. Joan of Arc church were LifeWise founder and CEO Joel Penton and Ohio Lt. Governor Jon Husted.

Husted is touring the state with LifeWise leaders as they present the organization’s information. A YouTube video titled “LifeWise Tours Ohio with Lt. Governor Jon Husted” begins with a statement that Husted and the Governor’s Office of Faith Based Community Initiatives began hosting a series of community roundtable meetings across the state last year.

The video and roundtables promote LifeWise’s efforts to provide religious education. LifeWise claims to be serving more than 100 schools nationwide, and its video includes Husted saying that every Ohio community would benefit from a local LifeWise Academy.

“This isn’t political. This is about kids in the community,” Husted said during the video. “I am here as lieutenant governor, sure … but it’s not about me. It’s about the responsibility we have as Christians and citizens to educate our children and to share the message of Jesus.”

In the video, Husted said LifeWise Academy is good for children and schools, and “builds a better, kinder, character-filled community.”

A LifeWise representative in the video states that, in 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that instituting programs like LifeWise is constitutional, and that more than half the states have laws on the books specifically authorizing the release time.

As of 2014, Ohio law does permit release time for religious instruction, provided “in part” that the program is off school property, privately funded and parent-permitted, said Husted’s press secretary, Hayley Carducci.

“It’s legal, and it’s impactful,” the unnamed LifeWise representative says during the video. “We really believe it’s the single greatest opportunity of the American church to reach the next generation.”

Snedecor’s email assures local church leaders that “together, we can make a lasting difference in the lives of our youth in a profound way by sharing the gospel during school hours.”

Most of Portage County’s school and faith leaders who spoke with The Portager are weighing in with a collective hard no.

Derek Hickman, senior minister at The Church in Aurora, said he understands the Protestant Christian faith as “inclusive and not imposing, welcoming and not exclusive, compassionate and not condemning.”

Aurora’s school board and administration must see the value in the city’s varied religious and cultural backgrounds, and must “honor differences by not providing exclusive religious programming or elevating one faith tradition over another,” he said.

“Personally, I am not comfortable with any offering of religious teaching during the school day because I fear it would make some students feel left out or somehow less-than. I value the growing diversity represented in the Aurora schools, recognizing the positive impact a diverse student body can have on our community,” he said.

Aurora schools Superintendent Mike Roberto attended the roundtable, but came away shaking his head.

“There was nothing we heard at the meeting that would compel us to look further into this proposal,” he said.

Acknowledging that he is aware of LifeWise, Kent City School District Superintendent Tom Larkin said, “I think it’s been pretty clear that the expectation of public schools is to remain neutral on religion and at the same time being respectful of a family’s religious beliefs and holidays and things such as that.”

Allowing that she is not familiar with LifeWise Academy’s proposal, Ravenna schools Superintendent Laura Hebert said the district has a long history of accommodating parental requests to provide students with release time for religious education during the school day “when parents wish for specific education to be included during the existing release time already built into the school schedule.”

Parents and guardians are in charge overall, and the district strives to partner with families to deliver what they believe is best for their children, she added.

Streetsboro City Schools Superintendent Mike Daulbaugh did not return The Portager’s request for comment.

Southeast Local Schools Superintendent Bob Dunn, who attended the Aug. 29 meeting, said he would need “a lot more information” before considering a program such as LifeWise Academy is promoting.

“Our teachers are stretched trying to get all the standards in that the state is asking us to achieve each year. They’re working really hard to do that, and to say we’re going to take some time away really would be difficult for us instructionally to do that,” he said.

Though he understood that some districts schedule the religious instruction during students’ lunch periods, by the time the students get their lunches, board the LifeWise Academy bus, are transported to the off-campus location and then return to school, the time available for actual instruction is quite limited, he said.

LifeWise Academy’s efforts coincide with Ohio House Bill 240, which is intended to allow public schools to employ chaplains to provide support, services, and programs for students.

Though they would have to undergo criminal background checks, “a chaplain employed or volunteering … would not be required to apply for a license or certification with the state board of education,” HB 240’s text states.

The chaplain services could be offered in addition to, but not instead of, school counselor services, the proposed bill states.

Joined by nine cosponsors, Republican District 50 State Rep. Reggie Stoltzfus introduced HB 240 on July 11. The House Primary & Secondary Education Committee began examining the bill on Sept. 12.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.