Virginia, like many other states, does not have specific laws regarding Released Time. As a result, a Released Time program in Virginia would need to obtain permission from the local school board for students to participate in the program.
It would also need to ensure compliance with the court approved guideposts 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.
Va. Code Ann. § 22.1-254
State law requires that “a school board shall excuse from attendance at school: Any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. ‘Bona fide religious training or belief’ does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code...”
1987-88 Va. Op. Att’y Gen. No. 330; 1983-84 Va. Op. Atty. Gen. No. 305
“Section 22.1-257(A)(2) requires that a school board "excuse from attendance at school any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief, is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school." Section 22.1-257(C) further provides that a "'bona fide religious training or belief' does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code."
The religious belief exception in § 22.1-257 was enacted by the General Assembly to assure that the free exercise of religion, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Virginia, is respected by government. The mere assertion, however, of a religious objection to public school attendance does not automatically constitute a "bona fide religious belief. " Rice v. Commonwealth, 188 Va. 224, 49 S.E.2d 342 (1948).”
1975 Va. Op. Att’y Gen. No. 146
“The essential elements of the policy in question are as follows: Upon the written request of the parent or guardian, a student will be released from public school attendance for a period not to exceed one hour per week to attend an organized religious education class. No such program shall be held in a public school building during normal school hours, and all students participating in such programs shall be under the care of the supervisors of that program; the parents of participating students shall relieve the school board of responsibility during periods of said instruction. The schedule for released time classes shall be determined by the school principal and, if more than one released time program is available, all children in a single class shall be released at the same hour for such instruction. School personnel shall take no part in enrolling students in any religious education class, and no announcement relative to any program of religious education shall be made in any public school classroom other than to inform the students that the hour of instruction has arrived.”
1974 Va. Op. Atty. Gen. No. 196
The School Board permitted mobile religious classrooms to be parked on public school property to minimize the travel time to participate in Released Time programs. However, the Attorney General opines that allowing these mobile classrooms excessively entangles of the public school system with the Released Time program and affects the school board’s ability to remain neutral.
Smith v. Smith, 523 F.2d 121 (4th Cir. 1975)
In Smith, a lawsuit challenged the Harrisonburg, Virginia Released Time program whereby public school students were released during school hours for religious instruction off school premises by a nonprofit organization supported by a council of churches. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals relied on Zorach v. Clauson to uphold the program. The court found the program to be constitutional because it (1) had a secular purpose in accommodating the wishes of the parents, (2) did not excessively entangle the state with religion since the religious instruction did not take place in the class rooms, and (3) its primary effect neither advanced nor inhibited religion. The court concluded that “public school cooperation with [released time programs] is a largely passive and administratively wise response to a plenitude of parental assertions of the right to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” Id. at 125.
Moss v. Spartanburg County School District Seven, 683 F.3d 599 (4th Cir. 2012)
In Moss, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a South Carolina school district’s practice of awarding academic credit through a religiously-affiliated private school, reiterating that Zorach is good law and holding that Released Time programs, and the academic credit received for them, is an accommodation of the parents’ right to choose the type of education their child receives.
* The rulings of the 4th Circuit of Appeals are binding precedent in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.