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An MSNBC accused a growing program that allows public school students to learn about the Bible of indoctrination during a segment on the program. MSNBC host Alex Wagner reported on the growing popularity of Lifewise Academy, a program that allows public school students to learn about the Bible off-campus during school hours. The program had originally set a goal of being in 25 public schools within its first five years after it started in 2019. It has blown through that goal and is currently implemented in 330 schools in 14 states, with those numbers to rise to over 450 schools and 19 states for the fall 2024 school year.

Reporting on the program’s growth, Wagner called it “distressing.” Wagner suggested the program was indoctrinating children and potentially violating First Amendment rights in the segment, which was entitled “Christian group uses public school-adjacent Bible study program to breach church-state wall.” “Penton’s LifeWise Academy is currently influencing the minds of public school kids in progressive cities like Columbus,” she warned. She referred to Columbus as a “blue island,” meaning a Democrat stronghold within a typically red state like Ohio. She warned that such blue islands “could be swayed by LifeWise” and warned against the program’s incentives, such as offering parties to students who brought their friends. She linked the potential political influence of the program to Trump, claiming that the former president had “managed to turn his Christian followers into politically pious voters, members of the Church of Trump.”

LifeWise Academy founder Joel Penton spoke with CBN News about the segment, comparing it to and “Saturday Night Live skit.” “The MSNBC piece frankly, to me, was hilarious. It genuinely felt like an ‘SNL’ skit,” he said. “That they would turn it into something that they find distressing … it was funny,” he added. Penton had participated in an interview for the segment and noted how the program left out positive statistics of the program and focused on the political ramifications. “They wanted to talk about political things and I kept saying, repeatedly, ‘We’re not … a political organization.’ We’re teaching Bible stories to kids,” Penton told CBN. He pointed to statistics by a third-party source that showed attendance goes up for kids that attend LifeWise, a number the report left out. He also addressed the claim that the program violates the First Amendment, pointing to a Supreme Court ruling. “In the same way that a child will maybe have art class once a week, and music class once a week, and gym class a couple times a week, through our program, a public school student can have Bible class once per week. It has to be off school property, privately-funded, parent-permitted, but the Supreme Court has ruled on this, there’s state laws about it,” he said. The case in question is  Zorach v. Clauson in 1952, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled religious instruction is legal during time-released periods of school provided it is held off-campus and not funded by school funds. Penton shared the positive impact the program has had in schools. “We’re getting stories of kids that are coming to faith, asking to be baptized,” he said. “Families that are reconnecting to the church, schools that are being transformed, public school teachers that are saying, ‘Whatever you’re doing over there at that LifeWise thing, please keep it up, because I see the change in my students.’”

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