Arizona law requires each school district to adopt a policy governing the dismissal 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 court approved guidepost for Released Time programs. These 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 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.
Arizona Rev. Stat. Ann §15-802
A child may be excused from school if “[t]he 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.”
1976-1977 Ariz. Op. Att’y Gen. No. R76-292
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.
1995 Ariz. Op. Att’y Gen. No. R94-35
The opinion acknowledges the factual differences between the question at hand and the facts arising in Lanner v. Wimmer. The opinion states that in Lanner, the students” participated in the release-time program in good faith with the expectation of receiving academic credit.” The court ruled it would be “grossly unfair and inequitable to invalidate already earned academic credit.” This opinion states that awarding high school academic credits for Released Time participation not pursuant to and in violation of a written policy does not allow the academic credit to be granted.
Newdow v. Rio Linda Union Sch. Dist., 597 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2010).
In Newdow, 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.
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.