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General Information

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 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.

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.

Statutes

Va. Code Ann. § 22.1-254
The Virginia compulsory attendance law requires that all children; ages 5-18 (inclusive), must attend a public school “or a private, denominational or parochial school.” Parents may, as an alternative, have their children receive their education from a tutor or provide for the home instruction of their children.

State law also 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...”

Regulation

None

Attorney General Opinion

1987-88 Va. Op. Att’y Gen. 330; 1983-84 Va. Op. Att’y Gen. 305
Section § 22.1-254(b) permits home instruction for religious reasons. The opinions do not expressly permit or prohibit release time for religious instruction.

Case Law

Smith v. Smith, 523 F.2d 121 (4th Cir. 1975)
In Smith v. 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.