KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — At Wednesday evening’s Board of Education work session in the City County Building’s Large Assembly Room, nearly every seat on the floor was filled.
And most stayed as the board worked through a long agenda, discussing contracts, grants, the minutiae of a proposed move to another building, and how best to measure the success of Project GRAD — a topic that drew a record number of public commenters in April 2018.
But this time, most people were there to hear discussion of, and speak out for or against, a proposed policy establishing guidelines for a Bible Release Time program in Knox County Schools.
The Church at Sterchi Hills, backed by the Christian nonprofit Elgin Foundation, has been piloting the program at Sterchi Elementary School in North Knoxville since spring.
Knox school board divided on policy
The program, predicated on a 2015 Tennessee law that allows local school boards to have a policy excusing students during the school day to attend a course in “religious moral instruction,” pulls children from the school for one hour a month. They’re transported about two miles to the church, where they have 10 minutes of “singing and games,” 10 minutes of “memory work, prayer and review” and a 25-minute Bible lesson before being taken back to school. None of it can take place on school property or use taxpayer dollars. The church must transport the children and parents must sign a waiver for their children to attend.
The school board is set to vote next week on whether to have such a policy in Knox County Schools.
The Elgin Foundation has had similar programs approved in at least nine other Tennessee districts. But in Knox County, it’s raised a host of questions, primarily about separation of church and government, the potential for bullying of children who don’t participate, the safety of children who leave school with a third-party entity during the school day, and missed instructional time.
The school board itself is divided on the issue, as discussion Wednesday night showed. Patti Bounds, the most vocal supporter of the policy, dismissed the concern that missing an hour of class once a month would be detrimental to children. Sterchi third-, fourth- and fifth-graders now miss music, art or library to attend the program; second-graders miss language arts.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Owens said she found “shoving this (policy) through before we’ve completed a pilot and before we have any data is extremely concerning.” Owens presented a laundry list of what she said was about a quarter of the unanswered questions she and members of the public had about the program: Could it increase disparities if some schools were offered programs and others weren’t? Who has liability if a student gets injured boarding the church’s bus? Into how many different languages would the school board need to translate program information and parent waivers — and who would pay for that? How would churches provide skilled nursing care or aides for students who required it — because to deny those children would be discrimination?
Tony Norman, the only board member besides Bounds to attend one of the Sterchi programs, said as “an old Sunday School teacher,” he found the program, which included singing, dancing and a sermon, “very impressive.”
“It was an amazing experience,” Norman said — but he added that he couldn’t get past the fact that it could have a negative impact on students whose parents didn’t give them permission to attend.
“There’s a simple solution to this,” Norman said. “Just do it after school.”
But board chair Susan Horn said that 70 of Sterchi’s 300 students participated, which shows parents want the program.
“This is allowed under state law,” Horn said. “We’re in a time right now when parental rights are being challenged. We need to remember that it’s the parents’ right to educate their child, however they choose to do that. Yes, we say that they’re ‘our children,’ and they are in a sense, but only because the parents have given us authority over their child. … Parents have this right.”
- Public divided as well
Three hours and 15 minutes into the meeting, the public forum opened, with 15 speakers signed up.
The first was Faye Heatherly, a Campbell County school board member who said her district had such success with a Bible Release Time pilot four years ago that it expanded it to all eight elementary schools and is beginning it in middle and high schools. In high schools, the Bible study courses will count as school credit, she said, which state law allows.
“It has been so well received by the parents and by the community, and it … has benefited our students beyond words,” Heatherly said before telling board members she would “pray that you all make the right decision.”
The second speaker was Alistair Elliott, a parent who is president of Atheist Society of Knoxville and co-founder and president of the local unaffiliated Satanic Ministry, which caused a stir with an October social media post threatening to begin its own Satanic Children’s Ministry in Knox County Schools.
Though some denounced the organization, which has close to 200 members and another 100 or so supporters, as a hoax, “I assure you, we are not fake,” Elliott said. “We are indeed a nonprofit religious organization established in Tennessee, and we will follow through.”
Elliott said the organization’s preferred outcome was that the board allowed no religious instruction time during school.
“These types of programs are designed to recruit other kids,” Elliott said. “They separate children of a chosen belief system and reward them with candy, toys and time away from school. … This will continue until only religious minorities are left in the class.”
Elliott said the organization would sue the school district if it allowed some programs but not others, and would provide lawyers to any families whose children were bullied as the result of not participating in Bible Release Time.
Elgin Foundation president Tim Rogers spoke of sponsoring similar programs in 23 other districts, and of the foundation’s current partnership with Knox County Schools to provide dental care for low-income children during school hours.
“Once public school boards become aware of the legalities behind this, they are excited to communicate to parents and the community that they care about the moral health of children in their communities and they want to accommodate the religious needs of parents’ rights,” Rogers said.
Several parents, and one former teacher, spoke in favor of having the option of religious instruction during the school day, saying it could combat problems like violence, bullying, depression and suicide.
- Impact of missing class time
Three art teachers in Knox County elementary schools spoke against the program, which they said would rob them of already short instructional time that could not be made up. Though Sterchi’s program currently is one hour per month, state statute allows children to miss up an hour a week for religious instruction.
Jenny Snead, an art teacher at Sterchi, said it’s “devastating” to her class when only four of 15 students are present because the others are at Bible Release Time. So far, she said, students have missed painting exploration and introduction, setting art goals for the year, art critique, printmaking, fiber arts exploration, how to interpret art, and preparation for art show and field trip.
Sneed, who identified herself as Christian, said her students are protestant, atheist, agnostic, Jehovah’s Witness, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, Wiccan, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Satanist and more.
“This diversity really strengthens our student body,” Sneed said. “I’m concerned for the potential for bullying, not only our students and parents but also staff and teachers that have a perceived religious difference.”
Betsy Hobkirk said she’s the only art teacher for more than 700 students at West Hills Elementary, each of whom gets art instruction every six school days. That already makes it challenging for them to pick up from one class to the next, she said, and when they miss instruction — such as for a course in clay — it can’t easily be made up.
“One hour a month is huge when you only get kids 22 hours a year,” said Karen Bertollini, who teaches art weekly to 775 children at Rocky Hill Elementary. “And we do amazing things during that time. … What seems to be one small hour is huge to the classes they are being taken from.”
- Physical, spiritual wellness
Joel Dew, pastor of the Church at Sterchi Hills, said that regardless of arguments against the program, “when the dust settles, it’s a law. … Parents want to exercise that right.”
He said other extracurricular activities, such as sports or academic clubs, exclude children based on ability, and that children miss instructional time for other activities.
“I will assure you the children you watch (at Bible Release Time) will sing more than they will at school,” Dew said. “They may miss out on watercolor. Watercolor won’t change their eternal destiny.”
Jametta Alston, a minister who in her previous legal career prosecuted child sex abuse cases, said children’s physical safety should be of as much as concern as their spiritual welfare.
Alston noted the state statute does not require school districts to mandate that participating churches have background checks and other safeguards to prevent abuse, in a setting where children are separated from parents and teachers and made to feel special. The school system, if allowing release time programs, needs to acknowledge abuse does occur in churches, Alston said, and be vigilant.
“We are saying that we are willing to send our children off without any protection, on the sole belief that churches are safe,” Alston said. “I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe Jesus will help us, hold us, protect us. But we have to use the intelligence we were given to protect our children.”