Vermont is one of several states that requires school boards to adopt a policy allowing for Released Time. If a religious group makes a request to a school board, the board “shall make available periodic released time” in a manner that doesn’t interfere with a school’s other educational programs.
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.
16 Vt. Stat. Ann. § 1051
“It is the policy of the State of Vermont to cooperate with religious groups by adjusting the schedule of public schools to provide periodic released time for religious instruction, provided that such adjustments do not interfere with the conduct of secular educational programs in the schools.”
16 Vt. Stat. Ann. § 1052
“(a) As used in this chapter, unless the context otherwise clearly requires:
(1) ‘Periodic released time’ means time, occurring at least once weekly, during which public school students are released from school to attend religious education courses sponsored by and given under the authority of a religious group.
(2) ‘Religious group’ means any association of persons for religious purposes, including any organization of religious denominations, communions, or traditions.
(3) ‘Periodic released time religious education course’ means a course offered by a religious group during periodic released time.
(b) This chapter shall be construed liberally to carry out the policies stated herein.”
16 Vt. Stat. Ann. § 1053
“If requested by a religious group, the board of directors or trustees of a school district shall make available periodic released time, provided that the granting of released time will not interfere with the conduct of secular education programs within the school system. On request of a religious group, periodic released time religious education courses shall be included in public school catalogues and listings of course offerings, provided that all periodic released time religious education course offerings shall be identified as given under the provisions of this chapter.”
16 Vt. Stat. Ann. § 1054
“(a) No person shall conduct a periodic released time religious education course on public school property.
(b) No periodic released time program shall interfere with the completion by any student of requirements for graduation as established from time to time by the Agency.
(c) No administrator or teacher in a public school cooperating in a periodic released time program shall direct a student to take or not to take a periodic released time course.”
16 Vt. Stat. Ann. § 1055
“(a) No student may take a periodic released time religious education course without first having obtained:
(1) written permission from parent or guardian containing a release of the school from all legal responsibility for the student while engaged in the periodic released time program; and
(2) written permission from the sponsoring religious group to attend such course.
(b) All costs of periodic released time religious education courses shall be borne by the sponsoring religious group.”
Pierce ex rel. Pierce v. Sullivan West Central School District, 379 F.3d 56 (2d Cir 2004)
In Pierce, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals held that New York’s Education Law provision allowing “Released Time” from public schools for religious instruction did not violate Establishment Clause as implemented by school district. The local program did not use public funds or involve on-site religious instruction, the program was purely voluntary, and there was no specific coercion or pressure brought to bear on non-participants by school officials.
In McCreary v. Stone, 739 F.2d 716 (2d Cir. 1984), the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals referenced Zorach v. Clauson as standing for the proposition that a “program allowing release of students during school hours for religious instruction” did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Id. at 726. Similarly, in Katcoff v. March, 755 F.2d 223 (2d. Cir. 1985), the 2nd Circuit cited Zorach as “upholding school released time program for religious instruction outside [the] city’s school system.” Id. at 233. While these cases were dealing with constitutional issues unrelated to released-time programs, the circuit court’s references to the Zorach case implies that this circuit still recognizes Zorach’s upholding of a released-time program as constitutionally valid.
*The rulings of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals are binding precedent on Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.