California law allows school boards to adopt a policy permitting the release of students to “receive moral and religious instruction at their respective places of worship or at other suitable place or places away from school property.” Students can be excused to attend Released Time for up to four days per school month.
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.
Cal. Education Code § 46014
“Pupils, with the written consent of their parents or guardians, may be excused from school in order to participate in religious exercises or to receive moral and religious instruction at their respective places of worship or at other suitable place or places away from school property designated by the religious group, church, or denomination, which shall be in addition and supplementary to the instruction in manners and morals required elsewhere in this code. Such absence shall not be deemed absence in computing average daily attendance, if all of the following conditions are complied with:
(a) The governing board of the district of attendance, in its discretion, shall first adopt a resolution permitting pupils to be absent from school for such exercises or instruction.
(b) The governing board shall adopt regulations governing the attendance of pupils at such exercises or instruction and the reporting thereof.
(c) Each pupil so excused shall attend school at least the minimum school day for his grade for elementary schools, and as provided by the relevant provisions of the rules and regulations of the State Board of Education for secondary schools.
(d) No pupil shall be excused from school for such purpose on more than four days per school month.
It is hereby declared to be the intent of the Legislature that this section shall be permissive only.”
64 Cal. Op. Att’y Gen. No. 346
The Attorney General concludes that parents and students do not have a constitutional right to engage in released-time education programs unless attendance at school interferes with the free exercise of religion by unreasonably denying them the opportunity for religious education because students could obtain religious instruction before or after school. Additionally, a school district may take reasonable, necessary, administrative steps to inform parents of the existence of Released Time in the district and to obtain the parents’ consent for students to participate in the programs.
Gordon v. Board of Education of the City of Los Angeles, 178 P.2d 488 (Cal. Dist. Ct. App. 2d 1947).
In the Gordon case, the court upheld the statute providing that students with written consent of their parents may be excused from schools to participate in religious exercises or to receive religious instruction. The court ruled that the statute does not violate the provision of the California State Constitution guaranteeing free exercise and the enjoyment of religious worship. It also concluded that the Released Time program does not violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that forbids Congress to make any law respecting the establishment of religion.
The court also found that in the operation of the released-time plan in Los Angeles, there is no appropriation of public money in support of any sect or denomination and no teaching of sectarianism in the school system in violation of section 8 of Article IX of the California Constitution.
The Gordon case has established precedent in the State of California, upholding the constitutionality of Released Time and supporting California’s Released Time statute.
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.