What is the legality of Released Time Bible Education?
The legality of a Released Time program recognizes and reinforces the constitutionally protected right of parents to direct the religious education of their children. Released Time programs provide opportunities for public school children to be released, during school hours, for off premises attendance at Released Time classes, or not to be released. Unlike Released Time programs, before school, and after school programs do not allow equal access for all children due to transportation problems and extra-curricular activities.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of Released Time programs:
"We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it then follows the best of our traditions, for it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public services to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence."
-- Justice William O. Douglas, Zorach v. Clauson (1952)
Under current law, Released Time program participation by public school students is permitted with parental approval so long as U.S. taxpayer money is not involved. A summary of the more significant cases is as follows:
- In 1945, Vashti McCollum, an atheist, brought legal action against the Illinois Board of Education. Despite the fact that school officials were urged not to allow religious education classes on school property, this caution was not heeded. At this time, over 40% of all Released Time classes were held in public school classrooms. She argued that religious instruction held during regular school hours on public school property constituted an establishment of a religion. The Supreme Court of Illinois voted against McCollum and the United States Supreme Court reversed that decision in 1948.
- The Illinois Released Time program was held to be unconstitutional if governmental resources were used in the operation of the program. The courts ruled that the program used the state compulsory education system to aid in the teaching of religious doctrine and because tax supported school buildings were being used.
- Six denominations passed resolutions in support of Released Time after the McCollum decision. In the aftermath of the McCollum decision, the number of Released Time programs dropped by twelve percent across the nation.
- In 1952 a New York Released Time program was challenged. The New York Court upheld the program. The decision was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In Zorach v. Clauson cited above, Justice William O. Douglas, speaking for the majority, concluded that while the first amendment prohibits governmental financing of religion or in taking religious instruction, it does not require the government to be hostile toward religion.
- Courts upheld credit for Released Time Programs. In 1978, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Lanner v. Wimmer upheld Released Time classes and affirmed a state or school district's ability to offer elective credit for Released Time classes as long as criteria was not based on religious content.
- In 2006, a group of organizations lead by School Ministries was able to educate the South Carolina legislature of the need for a law that would provide a legal way to allow high school students to obtain elective academic credit for attending Released Time programs. In that same year, it was signed into law by the Governor; and it is known as the South Carolina Released Time Credit Act. it is also now legal in Ohio, Indiana, Utah, Alabama, and Tennessee.