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General Information

Pennsylvania is one of several states that requires school boards to adopt a policy allowing for Released Time. Students are permitted to be dismissed for up to 36 hours per school year to attend religious instruction.

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 guidepost for Released Time programs provided by the U.S. Supreme Court in McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948) and Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952). These guideposts 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, encouragement, or discouragement 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.

Statutes

24 Pa. Stat. § 13-1327
Pennsylvania compulsory attendance law requires that all children, ages 8-16 (inclusive), must attend a day school in which the subjects and activities prescribed by the standards of the State Board of Education are taught in the English language. A child may also otherwise be instructed by a private tutor.

24 Pa. Stat. § 15-1546
“The superintendent of the school district shall, upon the written request of a parent or other person in loco parentis, excuse any student who is the child of that parent or person in loco parentis from school attendance for a total of not more than thirty-six (36) hours per school year in order to attend classes for religious instruction: Provided, however, That the request shall identify and describe the instruction, and the dates and hours for which the absence is requested and that the parent or person in loco parentis shall, following each such absence, furnish in writing to the superintendent of the school district a statement attesting that the child did in fact attend the instruction and the dates and hours upon which such attendance took place.”

Regulation

22 Pennsylvania Administrative Code § 11.21
Upon written parental request, a student shall be excused from school to attend classes for religious instruction under section 1546 of the Public School Code of 1949 (24 P.S. § 15-1546). The student may be excused no more than 36 hours per school year.

Attorney General Opinions

None

Case Law

Commonwealth v. Bey, 70 A. 2d 693 (1950)
In Commonwealth v. Bey, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that a Mohammedan child, despite his parents’ belief that Fridays were the sacred day of that religion, could not violate the compulsory school attendance laws through continuous absence from Friday classes. The court emphasized that “neither rights of religion nor rights of parenthood are beyond limitation.” Acting to guard the general interest of the youth’s well-being, the State, as “Parents Patriae” may restrict the parent’s control by requiring school attendance. The state’s authority is not nullified merely because the parent grounds his claim to control the child’s absences on religion or conscience. In other words, the state has given the Board of Education broad discretion in granting excuses for a child’s absences.

Commonwealth v. Hall, 455 A. 2d 674 (1983)
In Commonwealth v. Hall, the court upheld the ruling of a local school board that excused absences for “educational trips” only up to 5 days. The court stated: “The Courts are not prone to disturb a school board’s decision. Indeed, they are without jurisdiction to interfere therewith unless it is apparent that the school board’s conduct is arbitrary, capricious and to the prejudice of the public interest.” Id. at 676. Local school boards, in short, have discretionary authority to determine what constitutes a sufficient excuse for absence from school. However, local school boards must comply with the statutory requirements when granting excuses for Released Time for religious instruction.

ACLU v. Black Horse Pike Reg’l Bd. of Educ., 84 F.3d 1471 (3d Cir. 1996)
In ACLU v. Black Horse Pike Reg’l Bd. of Educ., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals referenced Zorach v. Clauson as having upheld “statutory ‘released time’ program whereby public schools release students during the school day to receive off-site religious education.” Id. at 1487. While this case was dealing with constitutional issues unrelated to released-time programs, the circuit court’s references to the Zorach case in this way implies that this circuit recognizes Zorach’s upholding of a released-time program as constitutionally valid.

*The rulings of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals are binding precedent in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.