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General Information

Montana state law gives each local school unit the option of adopting a local policy that permits students to participate in Released Time.

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.

An organization that wishes to start a new program should determine who in the school district has authority to 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.

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.

Statutes

Mont. Code Ann. §20-5-102; § 103.
Montana compulsory attendance law requires that all children, ages 7-15 (inclusive); must attend public school unless the child is enrolled in a nonpublic school or home school.

Mont. Code Ann. §20-1-308
“(1) The trustees of a school district may provide for a religious instruction released time program under which a pupil may be released from regular school attendance for the purpose of receiving religious instruction upon written request, renewed at least annually, of the pupil’s parent or guardian. The trustees shall determine the amount of time for which a pupil may be released for religious instruction.
(2) A religious instruction released time program may not be established or administered in such a way that public school property is utilized for the purpose of religious instruction.
(3) Public money may not be used, directly or indirectly, for the religious instruction.
(4) Any period for which a pupil is released under a religious instruction released time program is part of the school day and week for purposes of 20-1-301, 20-1-302, 20-5-103, 20-9-311, and all other provisions of Title 20, and the release may not adversely affect the pupil’s attendance record.”

Regulations

None

Attorney General Opinions

None

Case Law

Newdow v. Rio Linda Union Sch. Dist., 597 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2010).
In Newdow v. Rio Linda Union Sch. Dist., the 9th Circuit referenced Zorach v. Clauson, describing it as a case “in which school children were allowed to be excused from public schools for religious observances and education.” Id. At 1026. While the Newdow case was dealing with a constitutional issue unrelated to released-time programs, the court’s reference to the Zorach case shows that this circuit recognized Zorach’s upholding of a released-time program as constitutionally valid.

Other court decisions by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have referenced Zorach in a similar manner. See e.g., Prince v. Jacoby, 303 F.3d 1074, 1099 (9th Cir. 2002) (stating that Zorach upheld “release time program where religious classes were not held on school property and there was no indication that the public schools enforced attendance at religious schools by punishing absentees from the released time programs for truancy.” (internal quotations omitted)); Cammack v. Waihee, No. 87-15073, 1991 U.S. App. LEXIS 18115 at *38 (9th Cir. Aug. 9, 1991) (stating that in Zorach, “the Court rejected an establishment clause challenge to a program whereby public schools released students for a limited time for off-campus religious instruction”); Collins v. Chandler Unified School Dist. 644 F.2d 759, 761 (9th Cir. 1981) (stating that in Zorach, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “releasing students to attend religious activities off school grounds [is] constitutionally valid”).

*The rulings of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals are binding precedent in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.