Oklahoma is one of several states that requires students “to be excused from school attendance for religious purposes.” It further requires school boards to adopt policies notifying parents of this right. This statute opens the door for Released Time in every school district in the state. Released Time programs should be operating in every school in the state to ensure that students are able to take advantage of their right under state law to participate in religious instruction.
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. 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.
Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 25, § 2003(a)(7)(n)
“The board of education of a school district, in consultation with parents, teachers and administrators, shall develop and adopt a policy to promote the involvement of parents and guardians of children enrolled in the schools within the school district, including: …
Procedures by which parents may learn about parental rights and responsibilities under the laws of this state, including the following: …the right to be excused from school attendance for religious purposes….”
Lanner v. Wimmer, 662 F.2d 1349, 1357 (10th Cir. 1981)
In Lanner, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Released Time programs in Utah permitting attendance at religious classes off school premises, did not offend the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. The court recognized that Zorach v. Clausen, permits the release of students during school hours for attendance at religious classes. Id. at 1358. These religious classes must be taught by religious teachers on private property. Id. at 1354. The court concluded that “neither the individual aspects of the released time program nor the cumulative effect of the various aspects of the program violate the Establishment Clause.” Id. at 1359.
Since the Utah Released Time program was substantially similar to the program in Zorach, the Utah program was declared constitutional. However, the court struck down two aspects of the program because they created too much entanglement between the school and the Released Time program.
First, the court determined that, although it was permissible for a school to prepare uniform attendance slips for a Released Time program to use to track student attendance, it created too much entanglement to have school personnel travel to the Released Time location to gather the attendance slips. The better alternative is for Released Time personnel to deliver the completed slips to the school.
Second, the schools recognized Released Time classes as elective credit, as custodial credit, as credit required for extra-curricular activities, and as credit used to determine the school’s eligibility for state financial aid. However, the school district would not award credit for “courses devoted mainly to denominational instruction.” The court held that granting credit for religious coursework is not unconstitutional in itself, just as it is permissible to recognize credits earned at a private religious school. The problem with the policy at issue was that it only awarded credit for programs that were not “denominational.” This standard impermissibly required the school to monitor the religious courses and determine what is overly denominational and what it is not. The court stated that the key for awarding credit for Released Time programs was for the school to have secular standards by which to measure the courses.
*The rulings of the 10th Circuit of Appeals are binding precedent in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.