Tennessee School Districts Face Debate Over Bible Study in Public School

The public school district in Knoxville, Tennessee faces a decision that has been met with much debate in the community. The school board will vote soon on whether to allow students to be excused from school to attend “religious moral instruction” classes once a month for an hour. Among other reasons, opponents to the proposed Bible Release Time program argue that students who participate in the program will miss out on valuable instruction time, while proponents say what they miss in traditional instruction will be made up in other ways.

“I will assure you the children you watch (at Bible Release Time) will sing more than they will at school,” Pastor Joel Dew of the Church at Sterchi Hills argued during a public forum of the school board’s December 4th meeting. “They may miss out on watercolor. Watercolor won’t change their eternal destiny,” he continued.

Knox County Tries Out Bible Release Time

Bible Release Time is going through a trial phase in Knox County, Tennessee at the moment, being piloted by The Church at Sterchi Hills and backed by the Elgin Foundation, a Christian nonprofit. Around 70 students attending Sterchi Elementary are transported to the nearby church once a month. The students, ranging from second graders to fifth-graders, are excused from regular class time to receive instruction at the church. Children in grades three through five miss music, art, or library during this time, while second graders miss language arts. According to Knox News, students participate in 10 minutes of “singing and games,” 10 minutes of “memory work, prayer and review” and a 25-minute Bible lesson before they are transported back to school. The church provides transportation.

The students must receive their parents’ permission to participate in the program. The Knox County school board approved the Sterchi Hills pilot program earlier this year so that board members could observe the program and decide whether or not they want to allow it in schools throughout the county.

Arguments Against Bible Release Time

Not everyone is thrilled by the program, as made plain by the heated discussion from the school board’s December 4th meeting. When Sterchi Elementary’s pilot program started, the East Tennessee chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sounded the alarm. The group distributed a flier to parents outlining the problems with the program, one of which being that children who participate receive candy at the church, which makes children left at school feel left out. The group also finds the language of one of the lessons about sin potentially traumatizing to children.

Additionally, the Satanic Children’s Ministry of Knoxville posted a particularly combative update to its social media account stating it was thankful to the Church at Sterchi Hills and the school district for launching the pilot program. A portion of the update reads:

We’ve been struggling to find the best way to kick off our Children’s Ministry. We knew the key would be getting inside our local public schools but there was no way presenting our Satanic Release Program to the Knox Country School Board that we’d get approved on our own. We’ve been waiting patiently for another program to be introduced because once Knox County allows one religious organization to come into the schools with a release program, they have to let us all in!

We are so proud to announce that pending the school board vote in November approving The Church at Sterchi Hill’s Bible Release Time program, Satanic Children’s Ministry of Knoxville will be coming to your local elementary with our Satanic Release Program! For one hour once a month, your children can be released from their school to come learn about Baphomet!

Let your children come check out our program! We have so many activities planned to help them learn the tenets of Satanism. We’ll even send your children back to school with candy, prizes, and educational materials so they can share our program with their classmates!

While the Satanic Children’s Ministry of Knoxville’s post comes across as sarcastic, they are not the only ones to raise concerns about the candy. School board member Jennifer Owen says she has heard concerns from parents that “students are coming back to school with candy, talking about what a great fun time they had,” potentially causing other students to feel excluded. Owen says she’s also fielded concerns from parents (many of whom are Christian) who want to make sure the church’s beliefs align with their own.

The Rev. Jametta Alston, an assistant minister at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church and a former prosecutor specializing in sexual abuse cases involving children, argued that the children’s safety should be the primary concern in this debate. Alston raised a concern that the state laws for the release time programs don’t stipulate that participating churches undergo background checks. “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.”

Three art teachers spoke against the program due to the instruction time children will miss in subjects such as art and others whose curriculum are not featured on standardized tests. While it may not seem like one hour a month is very much time, teacher Karen Bertollini argued it is a “huge” amount when you only see kids for 22 hours a year.

Arguments for Bible Release Time

A handful of people at the school board meeting spoke to the program’s potential for character development in children and the positive effects it could have. A school board member from a neighboring county said their county’s Bible Release program was adopted four years ago and has been so successful they’ve expanded it into the county’s middle schools and high schools. “It has been so well received by the parents and by the community, and it … has benefited our students beyond words,” Faye Heatherly said.