Bill would offer school elective credits for off-site Bible study

SACRAMENTO — When Gail Blake-Smith took an early retirement from ATT she was looking for something to keep herself busy. That’s when her teenager came home from school asking questions about topics that contradicted their Christian faith.

“I told her rather than give her my opinion, let’s take a look at the Bible and read what God said as an answer to her questions,” Blake-Smith said. “She was satisfied with the answers.”

The exchange prompted the woman to wonder how other students were processing what they were learning. That’s when she discovered Released Time Christian Education and launched a chapter in Chino Valley.

Released Time is a national U.S. Supreme Court-sanctioned program that allows public school children to leave their regular school studies for Bible teaching one hour a week. Seventy years ago Released Time brought the program to California, and now at least 30 other states have similar activities. In 1952 the Supreme Court said the program was constitutional because it was initiated by parents, held away from school property and funded entirely by individuals and religious organizations. An estimated 1,000 programs are being offered nationwide involving more than 250,000 students from kindergarten through high school.

“Any faith-based organization has the freedom to offer Released Time classes as long as they meet the criteria established by the Establishment Clause,” she said. “In New York, I just confirmed that 700 Jewish students in public education attend Released Time one hour per week, and Mormons also offer Released Time in Utah.

Supporters of Released Time cite various studies that show students benefit from religious education, including a 2003 study of the Oakland Unified School District by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

“The study concluded that the students improved, after one year, in three categories of literacy skills: comprehension, spelling and vocabulary,” Blake-Smith said, adding “As we know, when students feel good about themselves, they apply themselves and do better in class.”

Now, the California Released Time Christian Education Association is hoping to join at least four other states—South Carolina, Ohio, Georgia and Utah—in allowing high school students to apply the Bible study toward the electives needed for high school graduation. Participation in the program is completely voluntary.

Blake-Smith is working with state Sen. Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who was expected to introduce the bill, known as The Parental Choice Released Time Credit Act, before the Feb. 19 legislative deadline, one of his staffers said. Under the proposal students could receive two credits for attending the classes.

“Approximately 75 percent of our Released Time elementary students do not attend church,” she said. “Some are clueless when we mention Noah or Moses and think that they are new boys on campus. Some have never seen a Bible or been to a church.”

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