WHITEHALL, Ohio — After a morning lesson on multiplying fractions, about half of the students in a fifth-grade class at Etna Road Elementary School packed up their work and headed to the campus library.

The other half, all wearing matching red T-shirts, put on their coats, lined up single-file and boarded a red bus with the words “LifeWise Academy” painted on the side.

While their classmates back at school browsed shelves of books, the children on the bus sang praise to Jesus.

“For there is no other name … by which we must be saved.”

The students soon arrived at a church a half-mile away where, for the next 30 minutes, they would pray, read the Bible and sing worship songs — activities that have become a routine part of their week thanks to an Ohio-based nonprofit on a mission to put God back in the public school day.

LifeWise Academy is permitted under a pair of little-known, decades-old U.S. Supreme Court rulings that allow for off-campus religious instruction during school hours.

Fifth graders travel from Etna Road Elementary to New Life Church for their weekly LifeWise Bible lesson. Maddie McGarvey for NBC News

When LifeWise launched in 2018, the initial goal was to serve 25 schools by 2025, but it surpassed that long ago. By the start of this year, LifeWise had set up chapters in more than 300 schools in a dozen states, teaching 35,000 public school students weekly Bible lessons that are usually scheduled to coincide with lunch or noncore courses such as library, art or gym class.

LifeWise has won support from conservatives on the front lines of the new culture wars over LGBTQ inclusion, sexually explicit library books and the role of racism in American history. But it also has a growing foothold in some progressive suburbs and cities, including deep-blue Columbus, Ohio.

Its explosive growth has been celebrated by Christian groups and parents who’ve long decried the removal of religion from America’s classrooms — and denounced by those who believe there should be a hard line between religion and public education.

Supporters say LifeWise, which teaches children character development through Bible lessons, complies with the separation of church and state. Public schools are not allowed to directly promote or fund the program, which is offered free to students whose parents sign permission slips.

“A lot of parents want to be able to say to their child, ‘Yeah, you’re going to get science class, you’re going to get math class, you’re going to get English class — and you’re going to have Bible class, too, because this is important to us as a family,’” said LifeWise founder and former Ohio State Buckeyes defensive lineman Joel Penton.

LifeWise founder Joel Penton
LifeWise founder Joel Penton is on a mission to teach America’s public school children about Jesus.Maddie McGarvey for NBC News

But parents and activists who’ve mobilized against LifeWise say that busing students to nearby churches, where they sometimes collect prizes and eat candy, has made some non-Christian children feel left out or pressured to attend.

“Whether it’s happening on campus or not, this program is bringing religion into the school,” said Demrie Alonzo, an English tutor who works at several schools with LifeWise programs in central Ohio. “It’s not fair to the kids of different religions.”

At a time when conservatives nationally are fighting what they portray as liberal indoctrination in schools, some parents and critics see the opposite playing out, accusing LifeWise of using schools to draw children into an evangelical faith tradition whose members overwhelmingly vote Republican.

Opponents have also documented several instances of teachers and administrators promoting LifeWise to students, either by allowing LifeWise volunteers to visit classrooms, hosting schoolwide assemblies or advertising the program in paperwork sent home to parents — actions that, according to some legal experts, could violate the First Amendment.

Penton said LifeWise follows all laws and local policies and avoids hot-button partisan topics in its curriculum, which is designed to guide students through the entire Bible in five years. He said LifeWise receives “very broad support” from groups with a range of political views. 

Last summer, LifeWise’s national teacher summit was sponsored by Patriot Mobile, a far-right Christian cellphone company that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting school board candidates promising to fight LGBTQ acceptance in schools.

And in December, Penton appeared on the Truth and Liberty Live Call-in Show hosted by a group whose mission is to reshape American society by advancing conservative Christian values in seven key “mountains” of public life — including media, government and education.

On the show, Penton lamented the referendum last year enshrining abortion rights in Ohio’s constitution, saying it made him “incredibly sad.” It also made him realize, he said, that LifeWise’s mission “is all the more important.”

“What other hope do we have,” Penton said, “but to inject the word of God into the hearts of the next generation?”

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