In Ohio, a school district may offer the option of Released Time for religious instruction with adoption of a school district policy. The first step is to check whether a school district already has adopted a districtwide policy of Released Time for religious instruction. Furthermore, high schools can award academic credits for participation in a Released Time program provided that the programs meet certain requirements.
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.
Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 3313.6022
“A school district board of education may authorize students to attend a Released Time course for religious instruction if the following requirements are satisfied:
(A) As used in this section, “released time” means a period of time during which a student is excused from school to attend a course in religious instruction conducted by a private entity off school district property.
(B) A school district board of education may adopt a policy that authorizes a student to be excused from school to attend a released time course in religious instruction, provided that each of the following applies:
(1) The student’s parent or guardian gives written consent.
(2) The sponsoring entity maintains attendance records and makes them available to the school district the student attends.
(3) Transportation to and from the place of instruction, including transportation for students with disabilities, is the complete responsibility of the sponsoring entity, parent, guardian, or student.
(4) The sponsoring entity makes provisions for and assumes liability for the student.
(5) No public funds are expended and no public school personnel are involved in providing the religious instruction.
(6) The student assumes responsibility for any missed schoolwork.
While in attendance in a released time course in religious instruction, a student shall not be considered absent from school. No student may be released from a core curriculum subject course to attend a religious instruction course.
(C) A policy adopted under division (B) of this section may authorize high school students to earn up to two units of high school credit for the completion of a released time course in religious instruction. In determining whether to award credit for completion of such a course, the board shall evaluate the course based on purely secular criteria that are substantially the same criteria used to evaluate similar nonpublic high school courses for purposes of determining whether to award credit for such courses to a student transferring from a nonpublic high school to a public high school. However, there shall be no criteria requiring that released time courses be completed only at a nonpublic school. The decision to award credit for a released time course of religious instruction shall be neutral to, and shall not involve any test for, religious content or denominational affiliation.
For purposes of this division, secular criteria may include, but are not limited to, the following:
(1) The number of hours of classroom instruction time;
(2) A review of the course syllabus that reflects course requirements and materials used;
(3) The methods of assessment used in the course;
(4) The qualifications of the course instructor, which shall be similar to the qualifications of other teachers within the district.
Notwithstanding division (C)(8) of section 3313.603 of the Revised Code, high school credit awarded to a student for a released time course in religious instruction may substitute for the same amount of credit in subjects listed in that division.
(D) A school district, member of a school district board of education, or school district employee is not liable in damages in a civil action for injury allegedly arising during a student’s transportation to or from a place of instruction when private transportation is used under a released time policy adopted under this section. This division does not eliminate, limit, or reduce any other immunity or defense that a school district, member of a school district board of education, or school district employee may be entitled to under Chapter 2744 or any other provision of the Revised Code or under the common law of this state.”
1988 Ohio Op. Att’y Gen. No. 1988-001
“A board of education may adopt a policy that permits high school students to be excused from attendance during regular school hours for the purpose of receiving religious instruction off school property.”
2019 Ohio Op. Att’y Gen. No. 2019-015
This opinion explains that a board of education’s policy must comply with R.S. 3313.6022, Article I, Sections 7 and 11 of the Ohio Constitution, and the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The district may not prohibit students from inviting their peers to a Released Time program during non-instructional time while on school property or prohibit community members from encouraging students to recruit their friends so long as those community members are not school employees and the encouragement of the student occurs off school grounds. Furthermore, a school district may not prohibit its employees from encouraging or discouraging public school students from attending Released Time programs, so long as the employee is acting as a private citizen rather than a school employee and the employee’s interest outweighs the school district’s interest in promoting efficiency.
Moore v. Bd. of Ed., 212 N.E.2d 833 (Com. Pl. 1965)
In Moore, the Court of Common Pleas of Ohio held that a particular Released Time religious program maintained by the Board of Education resulted in the establishment of one particular religion (Catholic) and thus violated the U.S. Constitution. The Released Time program was conducted for one hour per day, 5 days a week, on public school grounds and was taught by public school teachers. The court determined that such a program had the effect of providing sectarian instructions to public school children at public expense. Id. at 841. One religious sect, to the exclusion of all others, is the recipient of instruction in its religious faith through this Released Time program. Id. at 844. In conclusion, the Court emphasized that these particular Released Time programs made the public schools nothing more than “instruments for securing attendance at denominational classes.” Id.
The court relied heavily on McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, and on Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, using their tests for determining the proper Released Time program. As a result, although the specific Released Time program involved in Moore was ruled unconstitutional, the court would permit a Released Time program in Ohio that conforms to Zorach. Therefore, a Released Time program is constitutional if it takes place off public school property, is not financed by public funds, and is voluntary with parental permission.
Ford v. Manuel, 629 F. Supp. 771 (N.D. Ohio 1985)
In Ford, an Ohio federal district court held that released-time programs could not meet in classrooms rented from the school district (at a price of one dollar a year) and which operated during hours overlapping the public-school day because the practice allowed the program to benefit from compulsory education laws.