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General Information

Arizona law requires each school district to adopt a policy governing the excuse of pupils for religious purposes. Such a policy may allow a student to be excused for participation in Released Time, as long as:
1) The person who has custody of the pupil has given written consent, and
2) Any religious instruction or exercise takes place at a suitable place away from school property designated by the church or religious denomination or group.

In addition, any Released Time program would also need to ensure compliance with the guidepost for Released Time programs provided by the U.S. Supreme Court in McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948) and Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952). These guideposts include:
1) The school cannot fund the Released Time program, other than de minimis administrative costs (such as the costs of a school board approving a local Released Time policy).
2) Released Time programs cannot take place on school premises; and
3) Student participation in Released Time programs must be voluntary. There cannot be any coercion, encouragement, or discouragement on the part of any school official.

However, these three points are not exclusive. One should conduct thorough research on the latest state and federal laws and court decisions to determine if there are any updated guidelines for a Released Time program to follow.

Keep in mind that school officials are not required to approve a program. However, with community support, a carefully researched approach, and a proposal consistent with state law, you should expect success in gaining approval for the program.

Statutes

Arizona Rev. Stat. Ann §15-802
Children between the ages of 6 and 16 must attend a public, private, or charter school, or attend homeschool. However, a child may also be excused from school if “The child has presented reasons for nonattendance at a public school that are satisfactory to the school principal or the school principal’s designee. For the purposes of this paragraph, the principal’s designee may be the school district governing board.”

Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §15-806
“A. The governing board of each school district and the governing body of each charter school shall adopt a policy governing the excuse of pupils for religious purposes. The policy may permit a pupil to be excused from school attendance for religious purposes, including participation in religious exercises or religious instruction. If the policy permits a pupil to be excused for religious purposes, the policy shall stipulate the conditions under which the excuse will be granted. These conditions shall include at least the following:
1. The person who has custody of the pupil has given written consent.
2. Any religious instruction or exercise takes place at a suitable place away from school property designated by the church or religious denomination or group.”

Regulations

None

Attorney General Opinions

Op. Att’y Gen. No. R76-292, p. 111, 1976-77
A child may be permitted to be absent from public school for religious purposes as long as consent has been obtained on an annual basis from all teachers, school presidents and probation officers. The total number of days of excused religious absences, however, must be reasonable in order that the exemption for excused absences not be abused.

Case Law

Newdow v. Rio Linda Union Sch. Dist., 597 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2010).
In Newdow v. Rio Linda Union Sch. Dist., the 9th Circuit referenced Zorach v. Clauson, describing it as a case “in which school children were allowed to be excused from public schools for religious observances and education.” Id. At 1026. While the Newdow case was dealing with a constitutional issue unrelated to released-time programs, the court’s reference to the Zorach case shows that this circuit recognized Zorach’s upholding of a released-time program as constitutionally valid.

Other court decisions by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have referenced Zorach in a similar manner. See e.g., Prince v. Jacoby, 303 F.3d 1074, 1099 (9th Cir. 2002) (stating that Zorach upheld “release time program where religious classes were not held on school property and there was no indication that the public schools enforced attendance at religious schools by punishing absentees from the released time programs for truancy.” (internal quotations omitted)); Cammack v. Waihee, No. 87-15073, 1991 U.S. App. LEXIS 18115 at *38 (9th Cir. Aug. 9, 1991) (stating that in Zorach, “the Court rejected an establishment clause challenge to a program whereby public schools released students for a limited time for off-campus religious instruction”); Collins v. Chandler Unified School Dist. 644 F.2d 759, 761 (9th Cir. 1981) (stating that in Zorach, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “releasing students to attend religious activities off school grounds [is] constitutionally valid”).

*The rulings of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals are binding precedent in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.