Nebraska lawmaker seeks to allow offsite religious electives for public K-12 students

Under the proposal, religious elective courses would be voluntary, off school grounds and limited to one hour or one period per school day

By: - February 5, 2024 10:12 pm
Loren Lippincott

State Sen. Loren Lippincott of Central City (courtesy Unicameral Information Office)

LINCOLN — A Nebraska state senator testified Monday that allowing offsite religious electives could be “another tool” in addressing K-12 students’ behavior and academic performance.

State Sens. Loren Lippincott of Central City, right. Sept. 20, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Bill 1066, introduced by State Sen. Loren Lippincott of Central City and 11 other senators, would allow a private entity approved by a public school board to offer elective courses in religious instruction. Students would be able to attend, at most, one period or one hour of such a course per day during a semester.

Lippincott said this method of instruction, or release time, could add a “valuable missing component” to Nebraska K-12 electives.

“It would be no different than a kid working at the John Deere store or doing something like this,” Lippincott told the Nebraska Examiner.

LB 1066 would allow school boards to adopt policies authorizing students to attend such courses, as long as they do not “undeniably promote licentiousness,” lack legal, moral or sexual restraints, or go against other school policies.

Parents or the sponsoring entity would be required to transport students to and from school, time that would be counted in the one-period-per-day window, but Lippincott told the Examiner the time would still be meaningful.

‘Still affects me to this day’

Multiple people testified in support of the bill, saying that religion has helped them, including Dallas Asher of Omaha, a 76-year-old who said he attended a weekly one-hour religious elective that was a highlight of his high school experience in Minnesota.

Shortly after graduating, Asher said, he joined the Marine Corps and later worked as a hydraulic mechanic in Vietnam. He said his former pastor’s teachings supported him and gave him the “internal guidance” he needed to reestablish his life when he returned to the United States

“Pastor Tom’s influence and his teaching still affects me to this day,” Asher said. “At 76, I still reflect on the learning in the release classes and will ever be grateful for those hours of instruction.”

Merlyn Bartels of Lincoln testified that having grown up Christian, he feels as though similar youths can be treated as outcasts. He suggested Lippincott’s bill could establish camaraderie. 

First Amendment concerns

John Bender, representing the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska, said his organization had two concerns about the bill: that LB 1066 would violate the First Amendment, and that how someone defines licentious content is subjective.

Bender said the bill provides a preference for religious students with an elective option, while nonreligious students might not have similar electives available.

“While there may be a good reason for giving release time for students to take courses that are not part of the ordinary curriculum — courses the school district is not offering for one reason or another — that should be open to other kinds of courses than just religious courses,” he said.

Lippincott and School Ministries Inc., a South Carolina-based, Christian-focused organization working to expand biblical programs since 1991, assert that religious education provided in this manner is legal, as long as it is voluntary and if:

  • A student’s parents give permission.
  • Instruction is off school grounds.
  • No state resources fund the instruction.

Six states allow academic credit for such release time, according to School Ministries: Alabama, Indiana, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.

Multiple faiths?

Grant Friedman of the ACLU of Nebraska testified in opposition, raising a concern that allowing public schools to ensure that instruction does not violate school policy would create an “entanglement.” He argued that schools can already create electives according to their community’s desires.

Isabella Manhart of Omaha, a college student studying to be a teacher, questioned whether LB 1066 would require any credentials of instructors and how schools could ensure student safety without requiring background checks of teachers.

Manhart, who has advocated for LGBTQ Nebraskans, asked whether non-Christian programs would be approved and echoed Bender’s concerns on what would be considered “licentious.”

“I know I’ve had Christianity weaponized against me by members of this committee at points, so I’m just concerned that we wouldn’t want to have these elected officials making judgments about whether your religion is serious or not,” Manhart testified.

Last December in Iowa, the Satanic Temple erected an altar in the Iowa state capitol building that was later destroyed by a Christian military veteran. 

Lippincott told the Examiner it would be up to school boards to approve the entities providing such coursework and suggested a school board could deny an offsite course if the Satanic Temple similarly requested to teach a course.

The Education Committee did not take immediate action on Lippincott’s bill.

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.