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General Information

Wisconsin is one of several states that requires school boards to permit students to participate in Released Time. Students are permitted to be dismissed for 60 to 180 minutes per week for 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

Wis. Stat. Ann. § 118.15
Wisconsin compulsory attendance law requires that all children, ages 6-17 (inclusive), must attend a public, private, or home school.

Wis. Stat. Ann. § 118.155
“(1) Any school board shall, without approval of the state superintendent, permit pupils with written permission of a parent or guardian to be absent from school at least 60 minutes but not more than 180 minutes per week to obtain religious instruction outside the school during the required school period. The supervisor of such religious instruction shall report monthly, to the principal of the school regularly attended, the names of the pupils who attended such weekly religious instruction. The school board may deny the privilege of released time to pupils who absent themselves from such religious instruction after requesting the privilege. The time period, or periods, allotted for the pupil to be absent from school for the purpose of religious instruction shall be determined by the school board.
(2) Any transportation to religious instruction or from religious instruction to the public school shall be the responsibility of the parents or of the organization sponsoring the religious instruction.
(3) The school district shall be released from all liability for a pupil who is absent from school in accordance with sub. (1).”

Regulation

According to the Wisconsin Board of Education, each local school board sets its own guidelines for Released Time for public school students, subject to the requirements of section 118.155.

Attorney General Opinions

38 Op. Att’y Gen. 281 (1949)
A Released Time program violated the First Amendment when the school aided certain religious groups by use of public funds.

15 Op. Att’y Gen. 4834 (1926)
Local school boards have the power to fix hours during which school will be held and to excuse students as long as the public teachers are not involved with the dissemination of religious instructions.

Case Law

Holt v. Thompson, 225 N.W. 2d 678 (1975)
The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that a Released Time program which involves no expenditure of public funds nor denies non-participating students the right to a free and public education is not violative of the U.S. or Wisconsin Constitutions. The Wisconsin Released Time statute (§118.155) does no more than accommodate schedules in schools to a program of outside religious instruction. Since it does not take place on public school property and since no student is compelled to attend religious instruction, the Released Time program’s primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religious.