School Busing of a Different Sort: Nonprofit Takes Students to Off-Campus Bible Studies

By Published on April 9, 2024

Once a week, an estimated 30,000 students across the country are picked up by what’s called “a big, red LifeWise bus” and leave public school grounds for a Bible lesson at a local church or other religious institution.

It might surprise some, but it’s entirely legal in the United States, says LifeWise Academy founder and CEO Joel Penton.

LifeWise was created in 2019, in Ayersville, Ohio, after Penton saw a local program like it in his hometown. Students would briefly leave their public school classrooms for Bible lessons at a local church or other religious facility, and then return to school to continue their reading, writing, and arithmetic lessons.

Currently, LifeWise Academy serves 323 schools in 12 states, and about 30,000 K-12 students, Penton said in a recent phone interview.

The nonprofit’s CEO addressed an area of confusion for many parents, who are uncertain when offered the option of midday Bible lessons for their children. Parents often assume that the government has full control over their child’s school day.

“I know what people are feeling,” Penton said. “They’re feeling that the school owns that time — the state owns the time of 8 a.m. [to] 3 p.m., or whatever the school day is, and that’s just not true.”

That understanding of parents’ rights regarding their children’s school time was legally validated by the Supreme Court in a 1952 case, Zorach v. Clauson, he said. The case permitted New York City students to leave their classrooms for religious instruction.

Penton says that ruling allows any parent to let their child receive Bible lessons through his program and not violate the First Amendment’s establishment-of-religion clause.

Another issue Penton says that LifeWise critics raise is a misunderstanding of the separation of church and state. The separation concept is not actually in the Constitution, but it’s often still cited when referencing issues involving religion and public schools.

Ironically, Penton insists that LifeWise is the epitome of church and state separation. “Kids are quite literally separated from the state school,” he explained.

The LifeWise founder has taken some heat from leftists for his Bible program. He says critics are “few and far between … but tend to be loud.”

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An NBC News report on Tuesday focused on how the organization occasionally offers “ice cream or popcorn parties” to encourage students to attend its lessons. That, NBC suggested, was a ploy to attract secular students who otherwise might not attend. It was the second of three reports NBC aired on the religious group.

Left-leaning sister network MSNBC ran a follow-up report on Wednesday, with host Alex Wagner claiming that LifeWise is “currently influencing the minds of public-school kids in progressive cities like Columbus [Ohio].”

That 10-minute segment, which included a rebroadcast of part of the previous NBC report about LifeWise, suggested that teaching students about the Bible could be indirectly affecting elections in “blue island cities” in red states.

In a video posted on X (formerly Twitter), Penton said that NBC “admitted that the program is very successful, that it’s growing rapidly.” He added that LifeWise is good for schools, too, noting that post-COVID-19, “chronic absenteeism” remained a big problem nationwide, but when LifeWise participates in the school day, absenteeism goes down.

Penton cites an independent study in October from the Thomas P. Miller & Associates consulting firm, which found that when LifeWise programs are in place, there is a “statistically strong” increase in student attendance. LifeWise programs are said to even have a similar positive impact with respect to disciplinary issues, which decrease at participating schools.

LifeWise almost always can persuade schools to permit its program, Penton said. “Ninety-three percent of the time the school says, ‘Yes, let’s do this.’”

The nonprofit founder says that LifeWise serves students in 12 states, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Some 250 of the programs serve elementary schools, a majority of the total.

There’s no charge for participation in LifeWise, Penton said, for either school systems or the student participants.

“We want to make the Bible available to all of them [students]. And that’s what we’ve been trying to build, a plug-and-play program any community can implement,” Penton said. Forthcoming programs include schools in Washington state and even California, in a Los Angeles County school.

He said he hopes to have LifeWise operating in at least 20 states and 500 schools by this fall.

To start a LifeWise Academy program, would-be participants can go to LifeWise’s website and start an online petition. Once there are more than 50 signatories from an area, LifeWise will aid local community members in the process of scouting a location and getting permission from the local school board.

 

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