A look into the relationship between religion and education within the UA public school system.

BY MATTHEW DORON, ’23; ELLIE CRESPO, ’22; FIA GALLICCHIO, ’22 AND SAFIA MALHOTRA, ’24. GRAPHICS BY DAPHNE BONILLA, ’22 AND MOLLY HENCH, ’22.

LifeWise Academy, a nonprofit religious program that provides off-site Bible-based education to public school students, announced that they were planning to introduce their Christian instruction program to elementary school students in UA starting fall 2022. LifeWise operates based on Released Time Religious Instruction (RTRI) laws which allow public school students to, with written permission from their parents, receive religious instruction during regular school hours. The foundation for LifeWise’s program comes from the 1952 U.S. Supreme Court case Zorach v. Clauson, which decided that public school students are allowed to be dismissed from class to receive religious instruction at an off-campus location.

UA parents had a variety of reactions; some were excited for their children to engage in the study of the Bible during school hours, and others worried about students of other faiths who would not be able to attend LifeWise programming. Students and staff in the UA school system represent a diverse array of religious and spiritual beliefs, and LifeWise Academy is one of many programs through which students interact with and learn about religion in UA, from IB World Religions SL to student organizations. However, some believe that certain religions are not represented equally, which causes students to feel excluded and to experience harassment.

A Pilot Program

During the 2022-2023 school year, students at UA elementary schools will be the first in UA to experience LifeWise Academy’s opt-in religious instruction program. LifeWise UA director Julie Coffman said that a pilot program of LifeWise is set to begin at Windermere Elementary School in the fall, and the organization is working with the district administration to create a timeline for the program’s starting dates at the other four elementary schools.

“LifeWise Upper Arlington started in February of 2021 when a group of interested parents came together to form a steering committee to determine if there was interest,” Coffman said. “Right now, since we are in the launch process, [we’re] overseeing our steering committee, interacting with the administration to formulate a launch plan and overseeing the community interests.”

The website for LifeWise UA says that over 200 parents are interested in the program’s introduction to UA Schools.

“[LifeWise UA] really spread through a grassroots effort where people that found out about it would share with people they know,” Coffman said. “We did have a few community interest meetings [where] we shared general information to the community, but those were [generally] shared through a grassroots effort where people would share with their friends.”

LifeWise Academy sessions are planned to be during the elementary schools’ Elementary Exploratoratons learning time, a 70-minute period in which students participate in activities exploring and enhancing grade level curriculum, social emotional learning and STEM learning, that occurs every other week. During this time, students will have the opportunity to leave their school campus to attend lessons about Christian and Bible-based character education. The LifeWise curriculum is based on a non-denominational Christian curriculum called “The Gospel Project” that connects the themes and stories of the Bible to real life.

“The draw for most families is to have the opportunity for their children to have a Bible education program during [school] time,” Coffman said. “We do have a lot of studies [that] support the improvement in mental health, improvement in classroom behavior and improvements in classroom performance as a result of Release Time Religious Instruction.”

Some parents, however, have expressed concerns that their non-Christian elementary school students will feel excluded since they would be unable to attend the lessons. Coffman explains that LifeWise is an optional program that welcomes students of all faiths to attend.

“This is an opt-in program, so all students are welcome regardless of their Christian background, so any child is welcome to participate,” she said. “The children that choose not to participate have an amazing program and explorations to attend [during their exploratory period].”

Using the funding they receive solely from private donors, LifeWise has made plans to ensure the inclusion of hard-of-hearing and special education students.

“We have been working with administration recognizing that a percentage of our students have IEPs and 504s. We’ve actually hired a teacher that is a certified sign language interpreter—anticipating that need—and we will work with individual parents who have children that choose to participate that have additional needs,” Coffman said.

Coffman said that LifeWise UA has taken precautions to comply with the related laws and policies.

“We have worked with the administration of Upper Arlington to ensure that our launch follows the US Supreme Court ruling, the state of Ohio Revised Code on Released Time Religious Instruction as well as UA’s local policy which allows for this instruction as long as it is off school property, privately funded and with parental permission,” Coffman said.

Calendar Confusion

Although the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from closing to observe religious holidays; many school calendars, including Upper Arlington’s, align with certain Christain holidays.

“We all know that the days we get off are because they’re Christian holidays,” senior Eliza Wunderlich said.

Every year, the Friday before Easter Sunday is listed as “No School Students and Staff” on the district calendar; and while the day is not formally recognized as Good Friday, many refer to that day off as such.  

“We get Good Friday off, and we get Christmas off [while] Hanukkah doesn’t necessarily get off. So I do recognize that [it] can seem like it’s skewed towards the Christian faith,” senior Anneliese Johanni said.

Coincidentally, the first day of Passover is also on Good Friday this year, a rare occurrence which allows Jewish students the opportunity to observe that holiday without missing in-class learning. However, other holidays such as Vaisaki, an important Sikh religious festival, and Layat Al-Qadr, an important night during the month of Ramadan, as well as the first day of Passover in other years, do not align with the district’s days off. Despite this, students who miss school for a legitimate religious reason, no matter their religion, can be excused.

“Obviously, breaks coincide usually with Christian holidays,” senior Noah Freud said. “But at least I get the excused absence if I want to miss Yom Kippur because I want to fast and have my Day of Atonement. I’m not held accountable, really, for the days that I missed. I have to make up the work, but I’m not punished for it.”

Despite the excused absences, however, some non-Christian students find it difficult to miss in-class learning for religious purposes. 

“I think especially for families that are more, like, I just think are more devout, it could be really hard to have to work school around religious holidays because [the] calendar isn’t super accommodating,” sophomore Shira Bohrer said.

In the state of Ohio, students are required to spend 1,001 hours in school each year, and some feel that could not be feasible if every religious holiday was a designated day off of school.

“If you want to get nitpicky then [you] could have like every day off if you wanted. I think that the good thing is that if you need to take a religious day off and that’s like allowed, but I don’t think [we] necessarily have to have the entire school take all these certain days off,” Johanni said.

Other students believe that closing school for non-Christian holidays would be beneficial. 

“Seeing the calendar change to accommodate new holidays could also bring awareness [and] be a good opportunity for people to learn about new holidays and new religions,” Bohrer said. “So that could be really nice, and plus, I think you would also just be more like welcoming [for] people from those religions to know that the school is [accommodating] them.”

However, many non-Christian holidays revolve around the lunar calendar, or other non-Gregorian calendars, making it difficult to design a consistent year-to-year school calendar. 

“Christianity revolves around the same calendar that we use. Whereas most Islamic or Jewish or Eastern holidays in general, revolve around the lunar calendar,” Freud said. “I think it’s difficult to follow and chase those lunar holidays, when, you know, there’s six Jewish kids [or] there’s 20 Islamic kids and you know, you can’t call off school for 26 kids.”

Connection or Discrimination?

 In Upper Arlington, the only registered religious facilities are 18 registered Christian churches, ranging from Evangelical Lutheran churches to Presbyterian churches. 

“There’s no synagogues nearby. The closest one is 20 minutes away, and you have to take a freeway, so I couldn’t walk there if I [wanted] to,” Freud said.

Some believe that the prominence of Christianity has led to false ideas about religion in UA. 

“The nature of Arlington being so predominantly Christian definitely creates this idea that everyone’s Christian,” junior Sanay Tüfekçi said. “Which is not the case.”

Bohrer shares a similar view with Tüfekçi.

“It’s very oriented around Christianity… and I think that sometimes that’s okay, but I think it’s also something to sort of be aware of, in the sense that there are definitely a lot more other religions,” Bohrer said. “Even though Christianity is definitely the dominant one here, there’s still a big community of people that believe in other things.”

Freud feels that this lack of visible representation of other religions has negatively affected his relationship with his faith.

“I definitely feel less Jewish because of it… [and] because I have almost no day-to-day regular connection to anyone of my faith, I’ve just kind of fallen away from it,” he said.

Some Christian students also feel that their religion is not correctly represented. 

“I just think [Christianity] can be better well represented. Like, for example, having more people come to Faithful Forces, going to UA Young Life, [joining] FCA,” freshman and member of Faithful Forces Laila Knight said.

While the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, also known as FCA, and Faithful Forces are both Christian programs available to all students within UAHS, Knight feels that increased student participation within those programs would better represent the Christian community within the school. Knight said she often feels out of place while practicing or talking about her faith during school hours due to the negative reactions she receives from her peers.

“There’s a weird, like, fine line, where it’s like… ‘Am I allowed to talk about my Christianity at school?’” she said. “Because, for example, [at] my lunch table, we get too many glares reading our devotionals, like, just little things I feel shouldn’t happen.”

Tüfekçi, however, believes that the Christian community is well-represented in the community.

“I think that there definitely are more opportunities for Christians to really openly practice their faith,” Tüfekçi said. 

Wunderlich is a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and said they believe that their church policies influenced the way people perceived them.  

“While I was still a practicing Mormon, I did get a lot of comments about being racist and homophobic because the church policies, even to this day, are very racist and homophobic,” they said. “And that was hard for me as a member because I personally didn’t believe in those policies.”

Johanni shares the sentiment of feeling out of place because of her faith. She said she believes that the school’s attempt at creating a welcoming environment for everybody has created an environment in which she does not feel comfortable because of her faith.

“[I] just think that so much of it is skewed towards making sure everyone feels welcome and in doing so, creates a space that is really angled towards welcoming people of the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. “And I think they’re trying to build a culture surrounding that, but it’s something that I don’t feel comfortable with.”

UA Schools Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Matthew Boaz said that the district has attempted to create an environment that is welcoming for all students.

“We’re trying to build the most inclusive environment possible and we recognize that there are people of a variety of faiths and some people who don’t have an outward expression of faith in our midst every day, and we try to facilitate the most positive culture and environment that we possibly can so that everyone can thrive,” he said.

Classroom Concerns

The role of religion in the public classroom has been a subject of debate for decades. In 1962, the first Supreme Court case regarding religion and public schools ruled that school-sponsored prayer violates the First Amendment, impairing the relationship between public school systems and the church. However, debates of the same nature have continued over teaching religion in the classroom and some students feel unsatisfied with how their education has dealt with this issue.

“I think that we should have more information about all the different types of religion because I think that just helps people understand more about other people,” sophomore Aubrey Steiner said. 

Some students wish the school taught them more about religious history as well.

“I guess in classes, teachers don’t spend enough time on history of different religions and types of religious discrimination,” junior Emerson Katz said. 

Jones and Hastings Middle Schools teach about different religions as part of the social studies curriculum and some students have expressed a desire for more high school social studies classes to teach about various religions.

“The only time that we ever have [religious instruction] is [in] sixth grade Social Studies, learning about the different religions and having a test on it, and then, that was it. I feel like it should be a lot more than that,” Knight said. 

The high school does offer a one-year IB World Religions elective course for students who wish to explore multiple global religions through independent projects and classroom discussion, taught by social studies teacher Mark Boesch.

“I think this is a class that opens itself up to discussion. And while I have to do some lectures, and you know, some direct instruction, because if you don’t know anything about Daoism, or Buddhism, or Islam, for that matter, then you have to learn something, but I like discussion… when you have Muslims and Jews and Christians in a class that can relate their experience and relate their understanding of what they know to the religion,” Boesch said.

However, some students do not want content about religion to be limited to elective courses.

“Why don’t we do a language class within the Bible, and we can study the Bible?” Knight said.

Some students also believe that religion being taught in schools is unnecessary altogether.

“I don’t think that every religion needs to be represented in some [way]. As long as we’re just accepting that people have different religions and we’re gonna just accept the fact that that exists,” Johanni said. “I think that if kids want those classes and are interested, then go for it.” 

There are also concerns about non-religious classes, such as literature courses, having Christian influences.

“I’ve only really had talks about Christianity. Like when you read books like ‘Of Mice and Men’ and I’m not saying it’s bad that we read that, but there’s like really heavy Bible symbolism, but there’s nothing similar with that with any other religion,” Bohrer said. 

Tüfekçi said she believes that Christianity has become an undertone as a result of a predominantly Christian community.

“There’s definitely sort of an undercurrent of Christianity, I think, throughout a lot of our courses, especially from books we read and like just the fact that this community is so predominantly Christian. I mean it makes sense; I suppose that that’s how it goes,” Tüfekçi said. “The nature of separation of church and state and like not having religion in public schools is that you’re not allowed to talk about it, sort of, which means that to some extent it sort of creates these undertones. Where like, we’re sort of talking about it without talking about it. And then Christianity becomes ingrained into everything we do a little bit because we’re not allowed to explicitly talk about any of these religions or promote them.”

However, others feel that religion is absent from the classroom.

“I honestly think that our school district doesn’t talk about faith that much in general… I feel like religion is wildly not talked about or reflected in our administration at all,” Johanni said.

Boaz said that Upper Arlington Schools does not formally promote “any specific faith.”

“There’s a delicate balance as part of our inclusion efforts to allow people to express their freedom of speech, freedom of expression as much as is allowed within the confines of the law,” he said. “Policies and laws related to discrimination… state that a government entity, [such as] a public educational institution, is to treat people without regard to their race, national origin, religion, sex [or] gender identity. It’s not that we focus in on one or the other. It’s [to] treat people as equitable as possible without regard.”

Some students agree that a public school should be neutral regarding religion.

“In a public school system, I believe that there shouldn’t be any role for religion,” Freud said. “I think that you know, especially in school systems that may be more diverse than UA, bringing religion into the school can [do] more harm than good.”

A Brighter Future

In the future, some students hope that UAHS will make more efforts to help the student body become increasingly knowledgeable about other religions and cultures. 

“That culture festival that we used to have…. was actually really awesome. If we could get that going again, that’s one of the best ways I think to promote that diversity. I always wanted to participate in it,” Freud said. 

Boesch said that overall he believes education about religion and culture is important to shaping students’ understanding of society.

“I think it’s important that we can learn religion, teach religion, be tolerant of religions, and if we’re tolerant [of] religions, then maybe we’re tolerant of others, you know, understand that it’s important to be tolerant of other aspects of life,” Boesch said. “Religion and culture are kind of intertwined, and people are intertwined…Religion is important in a person’s life and important in society. But what religion you are doesn’t matter.”