Letting kids leave class for church fuels debate

Sunday, June 20, 1999

Releasing students during the school day for religious instruction off-campus is nothing new. The practice — often called “released-time” — was declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court almost 50 years ago.

What is new are all the conflicts erupting throughout the nation over requests for released-time. A reader in Tennessee (who advocates the practice) writes to say that a number of school boards in her state are currently refusing to allow it.

Tennessee is not alone. A quick check with school leaders in other places reveals considerable resistance to the idea. Pressed by time constraints and scheduling problems, school boards are increasingly reluctant to give up any part of the school day for religious instruction.

Keep in mind that school districts don't have to grant requests for released-time. The court merely said that they may allow it if they choose to do so.

Not surprisingly, refusals to allow released-time don't sit well with some religious groups — especially evangelical Christians — who have recently rediscovered the merits of the practice after years of ignoring it.

What's at stake in this conflict? A little history might help.

In 1948, the Supreme Court struck down the practice of allowing religious teachers to offer religious instruction in public-school buildings. Four years later — in the face of widespread criticism of that decision — the court modified the ruling and allowed schools to release students for religious classes as long as such classes were held off school grounds.

At first, released-time programs were popular in many parts of the country. School officials seemed only too happy to accommodate religious communities wishing to set them up.

Protestant Christians started many of these early programs, but other groups were involved as well. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, Jewish students were released from some elementary schools in New York City to attend Hebrew school on Wednesday afternoons.

Of course, certain First Amendment ground rules had to be followed then — and now. Released-time programs have to be run entirely by the religious communities and not by the schools. Parental permission is required, and teachers may not promote or discourage participation.

By the late 1960s, many religious groups had lost interest in released-time. After all, it takes considerable commitment of time and resources to sustain such programs.

The most significant exception was and remains the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Today, every high school in Utah — as well as in other places with large Mormon populations — has an LDS Seminary nearby to which Mormon students are released for religious instruction each week.

Evangelical Protestant churches are driving the latest surge of enthusiasm for released-time. Increasingly alarmed by the secular culture (both inside and outside the public schools), many conservative Christian parents and ministers are seeking to reclaim some of the school week for religious instruction.

For the rapidly growing Muslim population of America, released-time isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. Midday Friday is their time for congregational worship, which typically requires 30 to 40 minutes to complete. Growing numbers of Muslim students are requesting permission to leave their campuses for Friday worship.

Whenever the case is made for released-time, someone usually points out that churches and other religious communities can offer religious classes after school or on weekends. This is certainly true (except, of course, in the case of Friday worship for Muslims).

But as a practical matter, many students have jobs these days (an unfortunate but rapidly growing trend) or are busy with sports and other activities after school and on weekends.

Asking schools to surrender an hour or two a week of class time (or study hall) to meet the needs of religious parents and students isn't asking too much. After all, students are often released from class for cheerleading, sports and other activities seen by many parents as less important than religious instruction.

In fact, public schools routinely accommodate all kinds of student needs and requirements. In a nation where so many of our citizens are people of faith, permitting released-time programs is good public policy. Justice William O. Douglas put it this way when he delivered the opinion of the court upholding released-time in 1952:

“When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs.”