For years, Kole Dotson watched — with a twinge of jealousy — as his Mormon classmates left school each day to attend seminary.
"I had the curiosity to wonder why that couldn’t be available for me," said Dotson, a senior at Cedar City’s Cedar High School who describes himself as a biblical Christian.
Now, Dotson and others like him finally have that chance.
He’s one of more than 20 Cedar City students leaving campus to attend a nondenominational Christian class during the school day.
Young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across Utah use "released time" to go to LDS seminary classes during the day, usually in buildings near their schools.
About 83,000 students — more than half of Utah high-schoolers — attended LDS seminary as of 2010. It’s unknown how many use released time to attend non-Mormon religion classes in Utah, but the practice is much rarer.
About half the states have laws governing released time for religious classes, said John Atkinson, president of The Fellowship of Christian Released Time Ministries. States can’t prohibit released time for religious classes because of a 1952 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Atkinson said he’s seen most Christian denominations nationwide take advantage of it, and, in recent years, even a Muslim group in Los Angeles held released-time classes.
Utah doesn’t have a law governing released time, but according to state administrative rules, students may attend such classes with written parental permission. Released-time religious classes must be held off school property.
The Cedar City class, which started up within the past few weeks, meets every other day during first period in a leased building about a block from Cedar High.
Robert Bantum, a ministry leader with the program, which is called the Cedar Bible Institute, said it started at the request of kids such as Dotson. Students approached their school counselor with the idea late last year, and it quickly became a reality.
Pastors are taking turns teaching the class, which Bantum said focuses on "accurate teaching of the Holy Bible." He said students begin by praying and talking for about 15 minutes before turning to the day’s studies.
"We want to help out in every way and let the children have as much knowledge as they can in God," Bantum said, "and the book that he has [created] for us."
Caitlyn Osborn, a Cedar Bible Institute student, said she was excited to spend more time learning about the Almighty. Plus, she saw it as a way to meet and spend time with others of similar faiths.
"I thought that it would be a really good opportunity for us to have a class during school that we could learn about our religion like [in] the LDS seminary," said Osborn, a Cedar High senior who attends a Southern Baptist church.
She said religion gives meaning to her life. If she weren’t attending the institute, Osborn said, she’d just have a free period.
Dotson said if he weren’t attending the institute, he’d probably take another food or physical-education class, but he wouldn’t need either to graduate.
He said he always felt like a bit of an oddball, growing up surrounded by mostly Mormon kids. The new released-time Bible class is a chance to be with others like him and to learn about his own faith.
"To have something like this available in this small of a town," Dotson said, "… I thought was a big step."
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