Is it Legal?
Under current law, it is constitutionally permissible for schools to dismiss students to attend a Released Time program during the school day with parental approval so long as the school does not fund the Released Time program and instruction occurs off school grounds.
A summary of the more significant cases is as follows:
- In 1948 in McCollum v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Champaign County, Illinois Board of Education violated the Constitution through its extensive cooperation with a local Released Time program. The Court focused on two problematic aspects. First, the program took place in the public school buildings, with religious instructors paid for by local churches teaching the classes on campus during the school day. Second, the schools, which not only approved the religious instructors but also handed out permission forms to students, had too much involvement in the operation of the Released Time program.
- However, in 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld New York City’s involvement with the Released Time program in Zorach v. Clausen. The Court determined that NYC’s program differed from the Champaign program in several key respects: the student left the school premises and went to religious centers for religious instruction; all costs of the program were borne by the religious organizations; and the schools had minimal involvement in the operation of the Released Time program.
- In Smith v. Smith, a federal appellate court ruled that it was permissible for a school district to share its enrollment list with a Released Time program which would then mail permission forms to the parents. Students returned the signed forms to the school for the Released Time program to pick up so that it could inform the school which students could be released for religious instruction.
- In Lanner v. Wimmer, a federal court determined that it was permissible for a school to prepare uniform attendance slips for a Released Time program to use to track student attendance. It also concluded that it was permissible for the school to grant elective credit to students who participated in Released Time.
- In 2006, a federal appellate court upheld South Carolina’s Released Time Credit Act that authorized schools to award academic credit for Released Time classes that met certain objectives and academic requirements. Since then, several other states have passed similar laws allowing students to earn credit for Released Time.
States take different approaches in how they legislate Released Time programs. Some states set out general rules applicable to every school in the states. Others allow each school district to set its own requirements. Although Released Time programs are constitutional, schools must follow local laws governing their interaction with Released Time programs.
Please see our state-by-state released time laws for guidance.
What are the Benefits
Schools are challenged each day to prepare students to succeed both academically and behaviorally. Released Time provides the opportunity for students to develop a stronger sense of morality and work ethic.
- Improved Academic Performance. Released Time improves the odds of students’ success, and it doesn’t cost schools anything! Across the country, teachers and school administrators struggle with limited funds to improve students’ academic performance, while they experience pressure from federal and state governments to raise test scores... all while managing the classroom. Released Time helps schools by decreasing behavioral issues and increasing academic performance.
- Character-Based Education, Near your School. Many Released Time programs incorporate character-based education in the religious instruction provided to students. Schools can trust Released Time leaders to meet the need for regular character education, proven to encourage students to develop internal controls such as honesty, self-discipline, and respect for others.
- Reduced Attrition. Released Time students perform better, have fewer behavioral issues, and are more likely to stay in school than traditional students. Parents who want their student to have a moral component in their education may be less inclined to enroll them in private schools or elect homeschool options when Released Time education is an option.
Consideration for Program Operations
Duration and Location
The amount of time during which students are dismissed each week to attend Released Time programs varies from state-to-state. If the states have not codified limits on how often students be excused for Released Time, then the question of duration may be regulated by the local school board. In addition, Released Time programs generally must take place off school premises. However, if the school district has facilities which are rented out to the community during the school day, then a Released Time program may rent those facilities on the same terms as other groups.
Released Time programs must obtain parental or guardian permission for their student to attend. Parents should know about the details of the program such as the identity of the sponsoring organization, the time and place of the classes, and have an understanding of what is taught during the program. Schools can distribute permission forms to students/families that request them if the forms are printed and paid-for by the Released Time program. Schools can also collect signed permission slips so that they can ensure that only students who have signed forms are dismissed to attend Released Time.
Advertising and Recruiting
Students have a constitutional right to invite friends to, or hand out invitations for, information about Released Time programs during free time at school. But public school employees cannot promote Released Time themselves, nor should representatives of a Released Time program be given special access to enter the school during school hours to invite students to participate. At the same time, Released Time programs are entitled to equal access to any community bulletin boards or flyer distribution programs operated by the school. And schools can share a mailing list with a Released Time program to allow it to send informational materials to families via email or mail.
Dismissal, Transportation, and Attendance
Students should be released in such a way as to not ostracize students who do not participate in Released Time, such as during normal class changes or other natural breaks during the school day. Furthermore, the school may not assist with the transportation of students to the Released Time programs. The transportation of students should instead be provided by the organization or parents/guardians. And it is advisable for Released Time organizations to provide a weekly attendance report to the school so that the school can satisfy state laws governing student attendance requirements.
Course Content and Instructors
Because the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from favoring one religious view over another, school authorities are prohibited from helping to select or approve Released Time content in order to maintain the strict religious neutrality required by the Constitution. Therefore, it is the sole responsibility of local sponsoring groups to select the curriculum. The Establishment Clause also prevents government employees (e.g., teachers and administrators) from promoting religion while in their official capacities. Thus, teachers or administrators who are on-the-clock may not participate in Released Time activities. But school employees can serve Released Time programs during non-work hours.
Released Time programs cannot receive funding from the school district. This includes any support or benefit flowing from the school district to the Released Time program, including free copying, discounted rental fees for school buses that are not given to other community groups, or even the absorption of any costs necessary to operate Released Time programs.