Tennessee school board votes down Bible Release Time policy

Published 9:03 am Monday, December 16, 2019

KNOXVILLE (AP) — A Tennessee county has voted against creating new rules for Bible Release Time and similar programs, despite concerns about what happens when some students are pulled from their classrooms for religious studies.

With a 5-4 vote Wednesday night, the Knox County Board of Education decided not to create more standards for these programs, news outlets reported.

Tennessee law already lets parents pull their children from school for religious studies. A pilot program was allowed in Knox County on the condition that it was conducted off school property and not funded by taxpayer money.

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Board members were voting on additional protocols that would formalize the program. Proposals included setting specific dates and times when students could be taken out to minimize classroom disruptions, and requiring the religious institutions to have liability insurance and perform background checks on people interacting with children.

Board member Kristi Kristy voted against it. She said a county policy can’t change the law, so “if we’re supporting parents’ rights, let’s just leave things how they are … and let them pursue those opportunities on their own.”

A pilot program was being run at Sterchi Elementary School in North Knoxville through The Church at Sterchi Hills, backed by the Christian nonprofit Elgin Foundation. Students were removed for an hour, usually from art or music classes, and transported to the church where they would sing, work on prayers and have 25-minute Bible lessons. The program has since ended.

Parents debated for and against the policy and the program at a forum last week. Some questions were raised about separation of church and government, the potential for bullying of children who don’t participate and missed instructional time.

Foundation president Tim Rogers said a vote against the policy was a tacit endorsement of atheism, deferring to families who don’t have religious beliefs.