Are Evangelicals’ ‘Released Time for Religion’ Programs a Threat to Catholic Formation?

The recent growth among evangelical Protestants of the practice, which allows students to be taken out public schools for offsite religious instruction, is raising concerns that it could draw Catholic students away from the Church.

Teaching character traits is part of the LifeWise curriculum, which takes students through the entire Bible over a five-year period.
Teaching character traits is part of the LifeWise curriculum, which takes students through the entire Bible over a five-year period. (photo: Unsplash)

NAPOLEON, Ohio — An old but little-known practice of taking students out of public schools for off-site religious instruction is enjoying a revival among evangelical Protestants — with implications for Catholic educators. 

So-called “released time for religion classes” was begun more than a century ago in Gary, Indiana, by William Wirt, a public-school superintendent, and has been consistently upheld in the courts provided parental permission is granted, classes are held off school property and no government funds are used for them. 

Catholics, as well as Jews and Mormons, have employed and still offer released-time religious education classes in some communities, but the recent growth of the practice among evangelical Protestants is raising concerns that it could draw Catholic students away from the Church. 

Father Doug Garand, pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Napoleon, Ohio, where LifeWise Academy released-time Bible classes will be offered to public-school students in grades K-3 in the fall, said he fears that although the program purports to be theologically neutral, it will end up promoting teachings that are contrary to the Catholic faith.

In a recent letter, Father Garand urged his parishioners not to participate in or financially support the LifeWise program: “We offer religious formation in St. Augustine Catholic School, our Parish Religion Program (PRP) and our Life Teen high school ministry. This is where our resources should be spent promoting and teaching the Catholic faith. We must be evangelists who bring families back to sacramental worship. We must be the change to bring the unchurched back to the faith.” 

Rev. Peter Marcis, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Napoleon, which, like St. Augustine, has its own school, shares Father Garand’s concerns. Although his initial reaction to the program after watching a LifeWise promotional video was, “Who would ever not want to encourage kids to hear about Jesus?” as he learned more about it, he began to question why all clergy in the community were not brought together to work out the details. 

Furthermore, he told the Register, “Here in Napoleon, we have three tremendous Christian schools. … Each of these schools is able to talk about Jesus every single day in every single class. … Why don’t we encourage that?” 

The money raised for LifeWise Academy, he said, might have been put toward scholarships for children to attend Christian day schools. 

Marcis said he also fears that the LifeWise curriculum could draw Lutheran children away from the tenets of their faith. He was particularly concerned to hear a child in one of the LifeWise videos say, “I don’t go to church so this is kind of my church.” 


Growing Rapidly

Based in Hilliard, Ohio, LifeWise started with programs in two school districts in 2019, adding two more in 2020, and will be offering classes in 20 districts, including Napoleon, in the fall. 

“Our plan is to make it as broadly available to communities as possible,” LifeWise founder Joel Penton told the Register. 

For those who want to start such a program, LifeWise provides a model and guides them through the necessary steps, beginning with obtaining 50 or more signatures as proof of local interest. This is followed by a community meeting with a LifeWise representative, forming a steering committee to obtain school approval and assembling a leadership team.

“We seem to be at a place culturally where people really are wanting to see something like this for their public-school students,” Penton said, adding that currently, the program has had inquiries from residents of more than 130 school districts. 

Ken Breivik, executive director of School Ministries, which helps groups start released-time Bible education programs, estimates that about 350,000 students were attending Protestant released-time programs before the COVID shutdowns. He attributes the growth his organization has seen over the last 15 years in part to parents wanting their children to receive character and moral development.

“I think there’s this convergence of agreement that we’ve got to do something different with our kids and there’s pressure by parents to look for sources sometimes outside the traditional church.” 


Who Is Being Targeted?

Teaching character traits is part of the LifeWise curriculum, which takes students through the entire Bible over a five-year period. 

“As much as we can, we do try to avoid denominational differences,” Penton said. “We will even train our teachers to say there are different churches and that sincere Christians have different views on these topics. We try to major on the majors and minor on the minors.” 

Overall, Penton said, the program has had good cooperation from Catholic and other churches, with some Catholics even getting involved on LifeWise leadership teams. 

“It’s really to provide basic Bible education in the gospel for kids who are not hearing it. It’s really not about taking kids out of one church and putting them in another. It’s about the kids that aren’t in any church.” 

However, Father Garand said public-school students who are Catholic have an opportunity to receive religious instruction during school time may be less likely to go on Sunday morning to their parish’s religious instruction, which prepares them to receive the sacraments and educates them on faith, Scripture and the teachings of the Church. 

For example, he said, the LifeWise program in Van Wert, Ohio, formerly known as Cross over the Hill, boasts a 95% participation rate among public-school elementary students. “That’s not the unchurched,” he told the Register. 

Karissa Rutkowski, coordinator of religious education at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Van Wert, said most public-school students in the community do attend the LifeWise program. She kept her daughters out of it because they were already getting religious education in the parish, but they were clearly among the few who remained behind when the other students went to LifeWise. 

“It’s built into their [school] day so most families have their kids go,” Rutkowski said. “It’s just what’s done.” 

Still, she has never been told that someone who participated in the LifeWise classes stopped going to the parish religious-education program as a result. 

Asked whether his parish could offer released-time religious instruction, Father Garand said, “I think that’s something we have to consider so we have equal access to our own children, our own students in the public schools.”

He has informed Toledo Diocese Bishop Daniel Thomas of his concerns. When contacted by the Register for a comment, diocesan spokesman Kelly Donaghy issued a statement saying the diocese neither sponsors nor endorses LifeWise but recognizes the importance of released time for religious instruction. 

“For decades, catechetical programs across many of the Catholic dioceses in Ohio have taken advantage of this flexible time,” Donaghy said, “and we encourage this as a possible option for catechesis if a parish has the resources to do so.”


‘A Challenge for Catholics’

Presentation Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and educational research for the National Catholic Educational Association, said Catholic released-time programs were more common years ago before parishes changed the way they do faith formation. From the 1940s into the 1960s, for instance, she either attended released-time classes as a public-school student or taught them as a teacher in a Catholic school.

She said apart from offering study of the Bible, no evangelical Protestant program is going to provide the kind of faith formation given by a Catholic parish. Even Protestant-led Bible instruction could be problematic for a Catholic’s faith and development, she said, if, for example, the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration is presented not as real, but a representation, as many Protestants believe.

Notre Dame Sister Joan Curtin, catechetical director for the Archdiocese of New York, where Catholic released-time classes are offered in about 30 school districts, said she believes parishes have a responsibility to reach out to Catholic children in public schools. 

“I think we need to make sure that what’s being offered in the parishes is excellent, vibrant and welcoming to these children. They’re not second-class citizens because they don’t go to Catholic schools.” 

Sister Joan said Catholic schools are great vehicles for passing on the faith, but she would like to see more attention paid to catechetical programs by making sure they have well-trained leaders and catechists and pastoral support. 

“It’s a concern when other faiths, other denominations, are reaching out, but it’s a challenge for us Catholics,” she said. “What are we going to offer? We can’t just complain about it. I think we’re being challenged. Look out for your children, make sure they’re welcome, make sure you have what you need in the parish to form them in the faith so they want to come, and make sure the parents know.” 

Sister Joan added, “I’m not against anyone learning the Bible, but I think that as Catholic Christians we have to make the Bible alive for our own children and continue to teach them the good news that we have. It’s not the time to let up … The challenges are great, but I think we have so much in our Church. God is with us so we have to pick up the challenge.”