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Eureka public school students could have option of studying the Bible during the school day

LifeWise Eureka Director Leah Walder gives a short informational presentation to a few interested parents about the during-school-hours Bible class program in the recreational room
Collin Schopp
LifeWise Eureka Director Leah Walder gives a short informational presentation to a few interested parents about a during-school-hours Bible class program at Crosspoints Community Church outside of Eureka.

In a recreation room at Crosspoints Community Church in Eureka, a few parents take a seat and sip coffee and lemonade. All of Woodford County is under a Dust Storm Warning this Tuesday evening, but these parents braved the wind to learn more about a program offering biblical instruction during the public school day.

LifeWise Academy is an Ohio-based nonprofit that opened its first program in 2019. The program functions by equipping local chapters to train their own teachers and volunteers to run “release time religious instruction,” once-a-week Bible study classes for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

“The first question I had is, ‘How can you do that? That can’t be legal?’” said Leah Walder, director of LifeWise Eureka and a former grade school teacher.

Walder first learned about the concept of release time religious instruction from her husband, who had attended a Bible class as part of his public school education in northeastern Ohio.

“It’s from a Supreme Court ruling back in the 1950s,” Walder explained. “That says we can legally provide religious instruction to public school students during school hours as long as it meets three criteria.”

In 1952, in Zorach v. Clauson, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to release time religious instruction programs, as long as the programs:

  1. Took place off school property.
  2. Were privately funded.
  3. Required a parent’s written permission to attend.

The concept also is used by Mormon and Jewish faith programs across the country.
As of this school year, LifeWise CEO Joel Penton said there are more than 330 programs. Next year, they anticipate more than 500.

“But that number changes almost daily,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in 600 schools next year.”

LifeWise Eureka Director Leah Walder mid-presentation at the Crosspoints Community Church outside Eureka.
Collin Schopp
LifeWise Eureka Director Leah Walder gives a presentation at the Crosspoints Community Church outside Eureka.

A presentation Walder shows at the informational meeting says LifeWise costs about $30 per month per student to run. The slide stresses the importance of local donations and encourages parents to sign up for a monthly sponsorship.

According to Propublica, the nonprofit's operations skyrocketed between 2022 and 2023 — from $6.5 million to almost $14 million in revenue.

Penton said the revenue comes from donations from religious organizations, churches and private donors. Local chapters of LifeWise also do their own fundraising to pay a $20 fee per student per year to the national office.

“We call it the Vision Fund, recognizing that, to build a program that’s going to be top notch, provide the communities at a fraction of what it actually costs, you know, to provide a program that’s going to build out the infrastructure to reach the 13,000 school districts nationwide is going to be expensive,” Penton said. “So we do have very generous donors. Like a healthy organization. We have a handful of very high capacity donors.”

For Walder, bringing the program to Eureka Community School District 140 started with circulating an interest survey.

From there, the group appointed a steering committee and advisory team, got approval from the school district and made an agreement with the owner of a greenhouse near the Eureka middle school to help renovate it.

“So we’re in the process of starting to recruit a teacher, which will likely be a paid position,” Walder said. “And then, we will also recruit volunteers so there is a teacher and a few volunteers present at each LifeWise class.”

Walder said that person will be someone hired from the community, with at least two years experience in a classroom or Sunday school setting.

The students will attend one class a week, for about 40 minutes. They plan to start with just fifth graders and expand over time. Walder is still working with the district on when exactly class takes place, but they usually happen during a lunch, recess, study hall or elective class period like art or music.

The curriculum is called "The Gospel Project.” It’s designed by the Christian resources nonprofit Lifeway. It uses Bible stories as the basis for a series of lessons, with a specific character trait anchoring each session.

An example of LifeWise's Gospel Project curriculum provided by Walder. A trading card reads 'hope, expecting God will do what is best in every situation' with a cartoon Abraham looking toward a starry sky.
Collin Schopp
An example of LifeWise's Gospel Project curriculum provided by Walder. A trading card reads 'hope, expecting God will do what is best in every situation' with a cartoon Abraham looking towards a starry sky.

As an example, Walder has a trading card with the story of God's covenant with Abraham on one side, and art of Abraham with the word "hope" on the other.

“If [parents] need their student to be home at a certain time, or they can’t get them to school early, this is the perfect option for them,” said Walder.

When asked who the program is for, both Walder and Penton said they see it broadly: it’s for anyone, from Christian families looking to reinforce biblical teachings to children who have never been exposed to the Bible before.

Penton claims the program meets a need and fills a gap. He calls Scripture “fundamental” to the country and the education system, a foundation he sees as missing.

“Trying to provide all sorts of knowledge and skills without a foundation, without a worldview, doesn’t work,” Penton said. “Trying to educate kids without giving them a moral framework is not a good idea.”

When asked if schools can teach these morals in the program’s curriculum, characteristics like obedience, honesty, hope and trust, without religious instruction, Penton is skeptical.

“The child could be wondering, ‘Okay, you're telling me to be kind, but why should I be kind?’” he said. "‘You're telling me to be obedient, you're telling me to have humility, but why? What is this tethered to what's, what are you grounding it in?’ and that's the value of religious instruction.”

The program has faced some criticism in national news outlets, with parents worrying about their child feeling left out of or pressured to join the group. Some also voice concerns about the constitutional standard of separation of church and state, an issue Penton sees as settled by the 1952 Supreme Court ruling.

“Even with the strictest interpretation of that concept, you should love the program,” he said.

Leah Walder said she’s heard or seen a few concerns online, but assures people the program is legal and any religion can do the same.

A few interested parents braved a Dust Storm Warning in Woodford County to listen to the presentation on LifeWise academy in Eureka.
Collin Schopp
A few interested parents brave a Dust Storm Warning in Woodford County to listen to the presentation on LifeWise academy in Eureka. Adults sit around a white table, with Leah Walder presenting at the front of the room.

As the meeting at Crosspoints Community Church wraps up, parent Steven Sauder said, though none of his kids will be in fifth grade next year, he hopes they'll eventually be part of the program.

“So, certainly, something, if there’s an opportunity, we’d love for our kids to hear that from multiple voices in their life,” he said. “Not just us.”

The program can't send flyers home from school, so news of LifeWise spreads on flyers posted around the community and by word of mouth. Sauder said he plans to tell others about the program, but doesn't think it's a "hard sell" in Eureka.

Walder doesn't know exactly how the program will start out, but Lifewise national tells organizers to expect around 60% participation in rural areas. At the same time, the program is growing regionally, Walder said she’s been in contact with interested parents in Morton and Tremont and that nearby Prairie Central already has an active program.

Lifewise Eureka plans to kick off with the new school year in September.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.
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