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Published in Print: September 20, 2006, as S.C. to Allow Credit for Off-Campus Religious Study

S.C. to Allow Credit for Off-Campus Religious Study

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In a major victory for religious advocates, the South Carolina legislature approved a law this summer allowing high schools to give credit to students for off-campus religious study during the school day.

Anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 students nationwide leave their schools every week for religious instruction—a practice known as released time—and states and districts typically count the off-campus study time toward the total number of hours a student must spend in the classroom each day.

South Carolina, though, appears to be the first state to pass a law allowing school districts to grant an elective credit toward graduation for the off-campus religious study. The programs still must be approved by local districts and are not likely to be in place until next school year.

Advocates of the programs hope South Carolina’s effort will help add momentum to a national movement to get similar policies in place in other states and school districts.

Over the summer, the Southern Baptist Convention raised the profile of released time when it approved a resolution urging local churches to lobby school boards to adopt policies that would allow students to leave school for Bible classes during the school day. ("Southern Baptists Urge School Board Activism, Off-Campus Bible Study," June 21, 2006.)

“I think it will become more of a national model,” Ken A. Breivik, the executive director of School Ministries Inc., a Columbia, S.C.-based association for released-time programs, said of his state’s new law.

Legal Precedent

While many proponents of released time share Mr. Breivik’s optimism about the South Carolina law’s influence, some school lawyers advise districts to proceed with caution before adopting such policies.

“Any school board that would accept [the state’s] invitation needs to do some very careful lawyering,” said Thomas Hutton, a staff lawyer for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. “You have to be careful about how much the school is entangled [in the released-time program].”

Historically, released time has been challenged and generally upheld by the courts—as long as the schools have no involvement in transportation, recruitment, funding, curriculum, or administration of the program.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1952 decision in Zorach v. Clauson, ruled that releasing students from school to attend religious classes was constitutional. Just four years earlier, in McCollum v. Board of Education, the high court had struck down an Illinois district’s released-time plan, in which children took religion classes at their schools during the school day.

In a 1981 decision, Lanner v. Himmer, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 10th Circuit said that schools could grant elective credit for released time, as long as the courses were not evaluated by the school system for their religious content.

Reflecting that decision, South Carolina lawmakers wrote that released-time courses for credit should be “evaluated on the basis of purely secular criteria that are substantially the same criteria used to evaluate similar classes at established private high schools for the purpose of determining whether a student transferring to a public high school from a private high school will be awarded elective … units for such classes.”

‘Not a Right’

Supporters of released-time programs say that laws like the one in South Carolina help groups interested in starting such programs overcome their biggest hurdle: convincing school boards and administrators that the practice is, in fact, constitutional.

Learning about the Zorach decision “blows peoples’ minds,” said Mr. Breivik.

Released-Time Policies

States have set varying policies regarding off-campus religious study during the school day.

IDAHO | Students in grades 9-12, with permission from a parent or guardian, may be excused from school for an amount of time not exceeding five periods in any week and not exceeding 215 hours per student during a school year for religious or other courses. School facilities, personnel, or equipment may not be used for released-time classes. No credit may be awarded by the school or district for completion of courses during released time for religious purposes, but credit may be granted for nonreligious studies.

MINNESOTA | Upon the wish of a parent or guardian, a student may be released from school for off-campus religious instruction for a period or periods not exceeding a total of three hours a week. The program must be operated off campus and cannot, in whole or in part, be conducted or maintained at public expense.

NEW YORK | Students can be excused for off-campus instruction, with written parental permission, for no more than one hour each week. Classes are to be held at a time to be fixed by the school. If more than one released-time program is offered in a district, the programs must be held at the same time. A school board may allow high school students, also with written approval of parent or guardian, to enroll in a not-for-credit course in religion in a registered nonpublic high school.

SOUTH CAROLINA | School boards may award high school students no more than two elective credits for religious released-time classes. Schools must evaluate the classes on the basis of purely secular criteria, much as they would evaluate credits for similar classes taken at nonpublic schools for students transferring to public schools. The decision to award credit must be neutral to, and not involve any test for, religious content or denominational affiliation.

WISCONSIN | A student may be released, with the written permission of a parent or guardian, for 60 to 180 minutes a week to obtain religious instruction outside the school during the school day. The operators of released-time programs must report weekly attendance to school officials, and a school can deny released-time privileges to students who do not attend after asking to participate. Any transportation to religious instruction, or from religious instruction to the public school, is the responsibility of the parents or the sponsoring organization.

According to Zorach, schools can “do no more than accommodate their schedules to a program of outside religious instruction.” Schools may offer released time, the decision said, but they are not required to do so.

As the Bible Education in School Time Network, or BEST, a national network for released-time groups, based in Columbia, S.C., reminds visitors to its Web site: “Released time is a privilege, not a right.”

But Deborah Flowers, one of the BEST trustees and the director of Public School Outreach, a released-time program in Richland, Ind., said that “usually when administrators hear about it, know the legality, put their minds at ease, … they support it.”

Even well-established programs can face challenges, though.

The 2,600-student Staunton, Va., school district has had released time for so long that it’s a “fairly routine process,” according to district Superintendent Harry C. Lunsford. But two years ago, parents of children who did not participate in the program voiced opposition to it because they wanted the schools to offer academic content to their children while the other students were allowed off campus.

The district, which previously had not provided alternative instruction during the released time, agreed, Mr. Lunsford said, and the four elementary schools in the district now offer “Roots and Shoots,” an ecology course with a literacy component, to 1st through 3rd graders who don’t take released time. The released-time participation rate is roughly 50 percent of the students in those grades, he said.

In other schools, where participation is much higher, offering an alternative course for a relatively small group of students may be less feasible.

For example, in Rockport, Ind., Blake Bunner estimates that 90 percent of the students participate in the released-time program he runs for 4th and 5th graders of Rockport Elementary School.

During the weekly one-hour classes, the children meet in a local church, sing religious songs, and then divide into classes of eight to 12 students for about 20 minutes of religious instruction. The program’s staff members are responsible for transporting the students to and from the church.

One Rockport classroom has 100 percent participation, Mr. Bunner said, and another has just one student who doesn’t participate. The students who stay at school have a study hall.

Though released-time proponents argue that students who stay behind benefit from having time for homework or remedial or advanced lessons, Mr. Hutton of the NSBA emphasized that schools “do have to make sure that the kids who are left behind aren’t just sitting ducks.”

Response to a Decline

Concern over the dwindling participation rates in high school released-time programs led to the passage of South Carolina’s law, said Sen. George E. “Chip” Campsen III, the Republican who sponsored the legislation.

He said that such high school programs were “virtually eliminated” after the number of credits required for graduation was raised from 20 to 24 in 1999, pitting the time spent in the noncredit program with the need to earn four new credits to graduate.

At Spartanburg High School, for example, 35 students were participating in the released-time program when the credit requirement was changed, according to Troy Bridges, a member of Spartanburg County Bible Education in School Time, which administered the program.

The students were released during study hall, he said. But with the change in graduation requirements, study hall was eliminated, and so was the released-time program.

The Spartanburg group hopes to become the first program in the state to administer a released-time course for credit under the new law. The group plans to partner with a local Christian school that will administer the course and approve the credit. The public high school could accept the credit from the Christian school, just as it would for a student transferring from that school.

With the school board’s approval, the course will begin next school year, Mr. Bridges said.

Vol. 26, Issue 04, Pages 25,27

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