Maryland, like many other states, does not have specific laws regarding Released Time. As a result, a Released Time program in Maryland would need to obtain permission from the local school board for students to participate in the program.
It would also need to ensure compliance with the court approved guideposts 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. An organization that wishes to start a new program should determine who in the school district can authorize a program and make an appointment to see that person. If the principal refers the organization to the school board, it would be wise to meet individually with school board members before presenting the concept at a meeting of the whole board.
Md. Code Ann., Educ. § 7-301
(b) A county superintendent, school principal, or an individual authorized by the county superintendent or principal may excuse a student for a lawful absence.
69 Md. Op. Att’y Gen. No. 100
The opinion acknowledges the Supreme Court ruling in Zorach v. Clauson, allowing “a ‘released time’ program in which New York City permitted its public schools to release students during the school day in order for them to leave the school grounds and receive religious instruction at various centers.” The opinion further states that “a refusal to accommodate religious practice in this passive way would … ‘show a callous indifference to religious groups’.”
Smith v. Smith, 523 F.2d 121 (4th Cir. 1975)
In Smith, a lawsuit challenged the Harrisonburg, Virginia Released Time program whereby public school students were released during school hours for religious instruction off school premises by a nonprofit organization supported by a council of churches. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals relied on Zorach v. Clauson to uphold the program. The court found the program to be constitutional because it (1) had a secular purpose in accommodating the wishes of the parents, (2) did not excessively entangle the state with religion since the religious instruction did not take place in the class rooms, and (3) its primary effect neither advanced nor inhibited religion. The court concluded that “public school cooperation with [Released Time programs] is a largely passive and administratively wise response to a plenitude of parental assertions of the right to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” Id. at 125.
Moss v. Spartanburg County School District Seven, 683 F.3d 599 (4th Cir. 2012)
In Moss, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a South Carolina school district’s practice of awarding academic credit through a religiously-affiliated private school, reiterating that Zorach is good law and holding that Released Time programs, and the academic credit received for them, is an accommodation of the parents’ right to choose the type of education their child receives.
* The rulings of the 4th Circuit of Appeals are binding precedent in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.