This is a horrible way to offer an alternative to Bible class in Ohio schools
An atheist "group" that doesn't exist wants to launch a program it hasn't fleshed out
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Last summer, the Crooksville Exempted Village School District and Logan-Hocking School District in Ohio announced that they would be participating in a “church release time” program.
These are special programs where students are allowed to skip a part of the school day, perhaps once a week, taken to a local church, and basically indoctrinated into Christianity. It’s Sunday School… but during regular school hours. While these programs are funded entirely by the churches (including transportation) and parents must give permission for their kids to join, the public schools are still allowing kids to skip classes without penalty.
In 2020, when Tennessee passed a law requiring public schools to allow these programs to exist, it meant students could skip up to 180 hours per year. That’s 22.5 full days of instruction, gone. If enough students decided to ditch school for church, you can imagine the sort of chaos it would create for teachers.
I would argue these programs are entirely unnecessary. Students who skip school for these church lessons—especially if they leave the same class each week—will likely be academically behind their peers. Plus, churches already have all kinds of ways to indoctrinate children; they don’t need to interrupt the school day to do it.
But. If these programs are permitted, then all religious and non-religious organizations that want to participate must be allowed to offer them. Indeed, when a similar program was proposed in Knoxville, TN, the “Satanic Children's Ministry of Tennessee” announced it was working on its own version.
So back to Ohio.
The classes would take place during lunch periods or “elective” classes like art and music. However—and this is important—because the district already allowed parents to take their kids out of school during non-academic periods, there was no formal agreement with the ministry. Unlike in Tennessee, students wouldn’t be missing a mandatory course, so the district basically gave parents permission to take their kids out of school for some time each week, and if they wanted to use it for religious indoctrination, that was their business.
While the ministry asked the Logan-Hocking School Board for a resolution to recognize LifeWise, no resolution was passed for the reason I mentioned above.
The ministry said it could run both programs “on an annual budget of around $19,200 including the pay for two teachers.” It also didn’t shy away from saying indoctrination was the goal:
“Eighty percent of children in our county are not in church,” [steering committee member Katy Kudlapur] said. “Ninety percent of them are in the public schools. So churches need to be able to reach people with the gospel of Christ. And that means thinking outside the box. This program that presents the gospel during the school day is an opportunity to reach children who otherwise may never hear about Jesus.”
Like I said, it’s a horrible idea to replace actual education with religious indoctrination, but these Christians know their biggest obstacle is children who can think for themselves. They’re eager to put a stop to that and they’re not afraid to admit it.
It’s also, frustratingly, legal since the district isn’t technically endorsing religious education. They just letting the kids go somewhere during certain hours with their parents’ permission.
This week, an atheist decided to jump into the fray.
According to the Logan Daily News, an atheist named Louis Wood, Jr. is trying to launch a secular-themed program in at least one of the same school districts.
From an equal access perspective, good for him. Much like The Satanic Temple’s “After School Satan Clubs” were launched in response to Christian “Good News Clubs,” Wood wants to create a science-and-reason-based alternative to an existing Christian program.
The problem with his approach is that there’s just no substance beyond the idea. It seems to be all talk.
Consider how the newspaper reported it:
Now a group calling itself American Secularists is arguing that what’s good for the Christian goose is good for the atheist gander. Their Dayton-based Ohio chapter has approached school districts including Logan-Hocking – in whose Green Elementary School LifeWise Academy began teaching classes last fall – with a request to be granted equal access to provide students with an “atheist/science” release time curriculum.
There is no group called “American Secularists.” There’s no website for it. You can’t donate to it. It appears to just be the one guy. Saying they have a “Dayton-based Ohio chapter” means nothing when there aren’t any other chapters.
There’s also no indication Wood approached “school districts,” plural. It’s just the one.
Then it got even weirder.
Wood shared a communication he sent to the school district, asking for information on the details of the LifeWise program in the district, and proposing the parallel program, to be provided “right outside your school in a mobile teaching facility, privately funded by my organization and others who are on board to make this happen. It will also be funded by generous donors.”
Wood’s message goes on to say that the teaching staff for the secular program “will include paid and volunteer science teachers with college educations, teaching certificates, and will have no criminal backgrounds whatsoever… We wish this to happen during the same time as the religious release time program. We will get permission from the parents and have them sign legal forms to attend this Atheist/Science release time. The curriculum will include American Education standard Biology, Astronomy, and General Science.”
Did he have funds? Did he have donors? Where were these teachers coming from? And what exactly did his curriculum look like?
On Saturday, I spoke with Wood over the phone to get more information about his group and “their” plans. Over the course of more than 20 minutes, he became increasingly frustrated with my extremely basic questions and refused to answer any of them unless I first obtained all the same details from the Christian ministry. He wouldn’t tell me how much money he was prepared to spend on this program unless I had the Christian ministry’s budget in my hand.
His argument was that the ministry started from scratch, therefore he could also start from scratch, except the ministry wasn’t one person with an idea. There were multiple churches involved and plenty of money at their disposal. And also they actually did the thing they set out to do.
I also asked Wood for the copy of the “communication he sent to the school district,” since that seemed like something he could accomplish with a couple of clicks, but he wouldn’t send me that, either.
Bottom line: He doesn’t appear to have anything in place to actually run a secular alternative to the church program.
Which makes it much easier for the school district to dismiss him as a crank.
Which is exactly what happened:
Wood reported that a phone conversation he had with Logan-Hocking Supt. Monte Bainter didn’t go well, with Bainter eventually hanging up on him.
Bainter said he ended the call with Wood “because he kept screaming and yelling”…
For what it’s worth, after 20 minutes of trying to get answers from Wood, only to be met with insults and a refusal to respond, I had to hang up on him too. He then followed up with multiple voice messages on Facebook along with a note calling me “unprofessional” and saying “you will not get anything from me, I don't care if you have photos of yourself with Bill Nye and look pretty on Fox News.” (I accept his compliment.)
This is what he didn’t seem to understand from our conversation since he wasn’t listening to my questions: Attempting to offer a secular version of this program would be an excellent test of equal access under the law… but unless he’s ready to launch the program, there’s no way to really gauge the district’s response. And for now, there’s no opposition to what he’s doing, which means he has nothing to complain about.
It doesn’t help that Wood seems to have made up an organization out of thin air, claims to have money and donors that he doesn’t have on hand, and introduced his plan with a combative phone call with the superintendent. Those things aren’t necessarily dealbreakers, but they’re not helping.
For what it’s worth, Superintendent Bainter later told the newspaper that an atheist version of the program, if it existed, would be legal. He just didn’t believe any parents would sign up for it (which is a separate issue):
[Bainter] added, if American Secularists were to offer the program they’ve proposed during lunch, “and a parent wanted to sign their child out to go to that, then that would be a parent’s right to sign their child out to go to that.” He added, however, “You know very well that’s not going to happen here.”
Problem solved. The district is ready to accept the atheist program. No equal access issue at all.
Since that’s the case, then, what’s Wood so damn angry about? When I asked him what his complaint was, given that the district didn’t seem to be fighting him on this, he didn’t answer me.
But he did tell the newspaper he was ready to go:
While Wood made no secret of the fact that his group’s preferred outcome is to get schools to drop the LifeWise program, he said it’s fully equipped and prepared to start offering its atheist/science curriculum next school year if any districts take up the offer.
Fully equipped… supposedly! There’s a curriculum in place… in theory! The districts don’t have to “take up” the offer because they’ve wiped their hands clean of any formal connection to these programs. But that means his bluff has been called. What will he do now?
I would love to ask him if I could get a straight answer.
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