Fourth Circuit Upholds S.C. Released-Time Programs

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 03, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a South Carolina program that allows high school students to earn elective credits for off-campus religious education, reports The Associated Press. South Carolina is the only state that specifically permits credits for religious released-time programs.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation and the parents of two Spartanburg High students sued the school district, claiming that the policy impermissibly endorses religion and entangles church and state, in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Freedom from Religion Foundation Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said the foundation believes the Supreme Court did not envision allowing academic credit for what is essentially a Sunday school curriculum when it upheld "released time" programs - which permit students to leave campus for religious education, with their parents' permission - in 1952. She further noted that there's no comparable released-time program that atheists can take for "an easy A," the AP reports.

But the school district stood its ground, arguing that the policy was constitutional because it was neutrally-stated and administered, and that it had the secular purpose of accommodating students' desire to receive religious instruction. (The plaintiffs, on the other hand, claimed that the purpose and primary effect of the policy was to promote Christianity.) The district court granted summary judgment to the school district, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

"We see no evidence that the program has had the effect of establishing religion or that it has entangled the school district in religion," Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote for the panel. By contrast, the Fourth Circuit reasoned, "This model has enabled the school district to accommodate the desires of parents and students to participate in private religious education in Spartanburg County while avoiding the potential perils inherent in any governmental assessment of the 'quality' of religious instruction."

The court similarly rejected claims that public school officials were excessively entangled with the released-time program because they permitted the display of fliers about it in a counselor's office and the local Bible school was allowed to participate in an annual student fair, reports EdWeek.

The plaintiffs are considering an appeal.

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