Complaint about ‘Bible Release Time’ in KY school district leads to investigation

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A program that gave public school students biblical instruction at off campus locations during school hours recently led to a state investigation in one Kentucky district and a silent protest in another.

At issue in recent weeks in Laurel and Rockcastle school districts is the program called “Bible Release Time” and whether it was approved by the school board as required by Kentucky law. The program is sponsored by a non-profit group called Elgin Children’s Foundation and by local churches.

The Kentucky Office of Education Accountability, in a September 6 investigative report regarding a complaint in Laurel County schools, said Kentucky law permits students to participate in moral instruction with the authorization of local school boards.

While investigating the Laurel County complaint, OEA investigators said they weren’t given access to school board members and couldn’t determine if the members had approved the district partnering with Elgin to provide bible instruction at local churches. Investigators said they could find no contract or documentation of an agreement.

If Laurel County schools continues to provide Bible Release Time this school year, the district must provide the OEA with proof of school board approval by October 1, the report said.

Students, with their families’ permission, are allowed to participate in religious instruction for as much as one hour per week at a location off school premises, under state law. Boards of education can’t spend money on the programs except to survey families on their interest in the program, the OEA report said.

If school buses are used to transport students, the districts have to be reimbursed.

Students can make up school work they miss while attending the program. Hazel Green Elementary and North Laurel Middle Schools were included in the OEA report as participating in Laurel County.

Laurel County school officials did not respond to emails or a phone call on Monday.

Paul Phillips, General Counsel for the Knoxville, Tennessee-based Elgin Children’s Foundation, told the Herald-Leader Monday that Elgin has dental and academic programs for children, and supports child advocacy programs in addition to the bible programs. He said Elgin is careful to follow state laws.

Elgin has programs in about 20 east Kentucky counties in addition to counties in east Tennessee and southwest Virginia, he said.

“We operate strictly in compliance with the law,” Phillips said. No school resources can be used and the schools can’t endorse the program. He said his group’s bible programs, including transportation, take place only for an hour each month, so as not to interfere with school instruction. The bible program occurs at churches near the schools. Elgin pays for the buses.

Phillips said the program resembles vacation bible school, with singing and a bible lesson. The curriculum is non-denominational and the bible stories are not controversial, he said.

In regard to the OEA investigation, Phillips said he thought Laurel County Schools was following the law and that his group agreed with the OEA report. He said his group left it up to school officials for school boards to approve Bible Release Time. He said Elgin often sends staff to school board meetings to explain how the programs work.

Phillips said Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia laws on allowing moral education are all similar, relatively recent and based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlining how release time moral instruction can occur in a public school. That decision was from the 1950s and has never been reversed, he said.

Rockcastle County Schools

Rachelle Riddle, a Rockcastle County parent, said she was among four people expressing concerns through a “silent protest” at a September 13 school board meeting because they were unclear about whether the school board had approved Bible Release Time.

“I think the school board should address it because it’s a change in curriculum,” Riddle said. People on both sides should be allowed to speak, she said.

Teresa Combs, the Rockcastle schools attorney, said the board adopted a policy allowing the release time years ago

Riddle is concerned that all religions aren’t represented and the program could start “whittling away” at instructional hours.

On September 8, Rockcastle Superintendent Carrie Ballinger sent district families a message saying that numerous social media posts circulating about Bible Release Time contained “misinformation.”

Ballinger told the Herald-Leader that her message to families was a clarification.

Noting that Bible Release Time is a partnership between Elgin Children’s Foundation and local churches, she said in the message that the district policy was supported by state law, which says students can be released during the school day for moral instruction.

She reiterated that students must have permission from their families, that the religious instruction is provided for no more than an hour and government funds can’t be used to support the program.

No Rockcastle school employees are participating during the hours they are paid by the district. Students are supervised by the churches and funding is provided by Elgin, she said.

Angela Cooper, a spokeswoman for ACLU Kentucky, told the Herald-Leader that her group wants to be certain that children do not feel pressured to participate in religious education, particularly if those children are of a different faith than the program leaders.

“It is imperative to allow children of all faith backgrounds to receive equal education in public schools,” Cooper said.