Two Project 2025 partners are promoting LifeWise, an organization bringing “Bible education” to public schools

LifeWise teaches public school students Bible lessons during the school day, thanks to a pair of little-known Supreme Court decisions

Two organizations involved with Project 2025 — a personnel and policy initiative for the next Republican administration — have on at least three occasions promoted LifeWise Academy, a group that aims to bring Bible study to public schools throughout the United States. 

The Heritage Foundation, which is leading up the Project 2025 effort, recently hosted LifeWise founder Joel Penton on its The Daily Signal podcast. And the Family Research Council, a partner on the project, hosted Penton twice since last summer on its own podcast, most recently on April 1.

Project 2025 is a comprehensive effort of more than 100 organizations to provide a potential second Donald Trump administration with staff and position papers. Its central document is a nearly 900-page policy book called Mandate for Leadership: A Conservative Promise, which employs Christian nationalist talking points to support its right-wing goals, such as its promises to remove the term “abortion” from all federal laws and regulations and its call for a future executive to  “maintain a biblically based, social science-reinforced definition of marriage and family.”

In providing a platform to LifeWise, the Family Research Council is furthering that Christian nationalist agenda. Penton’s organization takes advantage of a pair of relatively unknown Supreme Court decisions that, according to LifeWise, allow for religious instruction during regular school hours as long as it takes place offsite and isn’t promoted or funded by the school or district. NBC News reported that LifeWise has “super-charged” the “release time” concept, “using a franchise-style, 'plug-and-play' model that allows local groups to easily start new chapters” staffed by LifeWise teachers.   

Some critics, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, say LifeWise’s approach violates the First Amendment. 

“Public school students have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination in their schools,” FFRF’s Samantha Lawrence wrote in a letter addressed to more than 600 Ohio school districts. “Thus, public schools may not in any way promote or otherwise show favoritism toward religion, nor may they coerce students to believe or participate in any religion or religious exercise. 

“It is a basic principle that the First Amendment requires governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,” Lawrence continued. “Districts that partner with LifeWise open themselves to a greater risk of students being unconstitutionally encouraged or coerced to participate in released time bible study classes.”

According to NBC News, Penton “denied relying on peer pressure to recruit students and scoffed at the idea that LifeWise might lead to bullying or teasing in schools.”

Despite Penton’s claim, the Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that in “communities where a significant portion or majority of students participate in such bible classes, the students who do not join are inevitably singled out in the eyes of their peers.” 

Students who don’t participate also risk losing out on valuable instruction time, according to FFRF, which said it “has received several complaints from families in different school districts alleging that non-attending students were given busy work, or no work at all, as a consequence of staying at school during released time.”

Right-wing media promote LifeWise

During Penton’s most recent appearance on the Family Research Council’s podcast, he was clear about LifeWise’s expansive goals. “We see a viable path of reinstalling Bible education for the public school system across the nation,” Penton said. 

Guest host Jody Hice, senior vice president at Family Research Council, then offered his summary of the objections to Penton’s work. “We are watching the indoctrination that the left is forcing into our schools, pushing things like the LGBT ideology,” Hice said. “It seems to me that is what all of this is really all about. These people don’t like children learning lessons from the Bible when those lessons are contradicting the message of their agenda.”

“You know, it’s hard to come to other conclusions,” Penton replied, adding, “It’s hard to come to conclusions other than there is a clash in worldview.” The term “worldview” often has a specific meaning in evangelical and other right-wing religious communities, encompassing an approach to public life based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. 

Video file

Citation From the April 1, 2024, edition of The Family Research Council's Washington Week with Tony Perkins

Another partner in Project 2025, the Center for Renewing America, has similarly pledged to create an “army” of activists to take power from existing conservative elites who don’t “operate on the basis of worldview.” 

During Penton’s prior appearance on the Family Research Council’s podcast, he described his organization’s encroachment into public schools as correcting “the single greatest missed opportunity of the American church to reach the next generation with the Word of God.”   

According to NBC News, LifeWise now operates in “chapters in more than 300 schools in a dozen states, teaching 35,000 public school students.” NBC further reports that in some cases LifeWise “promised students ice cream or popcorn parties if they convinced a certain number of classmates to sign up,” linking to a LifeWise podcast episode titled “Popcorn Parties and Enrollment Growth.” The article also notes Penton’s appearance on a show that adheres to the “7 Mountains Mandate,” which Rolling Stone characterizes as “a quasi-biblical blueprint for theocracy.” NBC added that during that interview Penton said Ohio’s recent referendum protecting abortion rights made him “incredibly sad.”

LifeWise’s theory of growth seems to be at least partially predicated on recruiting secular and non-Christian students and families. During Penton’s appearance on Heritage’s podcast, he recounted a story about a Muslim child faking his parents’ signature so he could attend with his friends. “His friends were going to LifeWise, and so he literally forged his parent’s signature on the permission slip to be able to go to LifeWise because he didn’t think his parents, being Muslim, would allow him,” Penton said. 

“Well, the school caught this and noticed this, and they said, ‘Hey, we can’t take this forged permission slip.’” Penton continued. “So he did go to his parents and he did ask them, and they agreed. And so they signed him up.” 

NBC also reported about a tutor who “saw a volunteer share a permission slip with a Hindu student.”

In a piece of promotional material called “30 Days of Prayer for a LifeWise Launch,” LifeWise directs its leaders to “pray for the Holy Spirit to birth a groundswell of desire for the LifeWise vision to ‘reach unchurched public school students with the gospel.’” That prayer comes on Day 1.