Tennessee law would require schools to excuse students for religious instruction

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / An open area is located between two classrooms at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts Tuesday, December 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / An open area is located between two classrooms at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts Tuesday, December 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

A proposed law in Tennessee would require public schools to excuse students from class for up to one hour each school day so they can attend outside religious instruction.

A 2015 law already on the books allows school boards to adopt such a policy, but the updated bill - if passed in the coming week - would require students to be excused regardless of whether such a local policy exists. It also would allow local school districts to provide transportation to students for such instruction if available.

The bill, House Bill 2542/Senate Bill 2473, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jackboro, and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, comes on the heels of a controversial decision made by the Knox County Board of Education last year.

In December 2019, the Knox County board voted against imposing additional restrictions and requirements on Bible Release Time and similar programs, despite concerns about what happens when some students are pulled from their classrooms for religious studies.

The district had originally allowed the Bible Release Time pilot program on the condition that it was conducted off school property and not funded by taxpayer money.

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, according to a report at the time from The Associated Press.

Hamilton County has yet to formally adopt a policy regarding missed time for religious instruction, but has a related policy on excused absences and religious holidays.

"Students shall be excused on special or recognized religious holidays regularly observed by that particular faith. Prior approval is required should these days occur while school is in session," according to the Hamilton County school board's policy 6.200.

Jay Fowler, director of the Chattanooga chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said it is good for young people to engage with faith. His organization supports around 3,000 students in five counties. The students, around 2,000 of whom are in Hamilton County, are leaders of groups within their schools or sports teams.

"We try real hard to equip and empower student athletes that are Christian to lead their peers in things like voluntary team Bible studies, as a school would allow it," Fowler said.

The fellowship primarily functions before and after school, so it is unclear how the organization could work within the expected new law, Fowler said.

Hamilton County students currently have the option to take an elective Bible history class, which is funded by the local nonprofit Bible in the Schools. The nonprofit funds the program, which last school year amounted to more than $1.5 million to teach more than 4,500 students.

Critics of the proposed law say missing classroom time would hurt student outcomes. Gayle Jordan, Tennessee state director for American Atheists, pointed to the state's 38th ranking for pre-K through high school education in U.S. News and World Report.

"Tennessee students cannot afford to miss so many hours of classroom time," Jordan said in a statement. "Our lawmakers need to get their act together and figure out how to fix, not further weaken, our public education system. Otherwise, students will suffer."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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