‘Time out for religion’ making a comeback

Sunday, August 31, 1997

Whatever happened to “released time”?


When I was in sixth grade, half of my classmates disappeared for
the last hour of school every Wednesday afternoon. They were released
to attend Hebrew school, an arrangement that was enormously popular
in our predominately Jewish New York neighborhood in the early
1960s.


Declared constitutional by the Supreme Court
in 1952, released time allows students to go off campus for religious
instruction during the school day. Once available in many school
districts, released time is today almost unknown in New York and
in most other communities around the nation. Few religious groups
now utilize this option, many finding it too expensive and difficult
to organize.


The pendulum may be swinging back, however.
As growing numbers of religious parents voice dissatisfaction
with public schools, some schools and religious groups are taking
another look at released time.


Not everyone likes the idea. Some school officials
and parents argue that there is not enough time now for teachers
to cover the enormous amount of material in the curriculum. Releasing
students during the school day disrupts the schedule and unreasonably
complicates the teacher's job. In this view, religious education
should take place only after school or on weekends.


Released-time advocates respond that there
is plenty of flexibility in the schedule to accommodate programs
that are not part of the core curriculum. After all, students
are released for sports and other activities, and certain times
are set aside during the school day for such things as club meetings
and study halls. Besides, say proponents, many of today's students
are working or involved in a wide variety of community programs.
Some of the time they commit to school should be set aside for
religious education.


The one religious group that has consistently
taken advantage of released time is the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints. In Utah, for example, high schools have
seminaries near-by-often next door-where Mormon students go for
religious education during the school week. The released-time
programs in Utah and in other areas with large Mormon populations
may be one reason for Mormons' strong support of public education.


The newest enthusiasm for released time is
among American Muslims. In some school districts, Muslim parents
are now asking that their older children be released for community
prayer on Friday. Because public school officials can decide whether
or not to allow released time, schools that refuse to accommodate
these requests face potential conflicts with Muslims, who view
Friday prayer as an obligation of faith.


There is also a new surge of interest in released
time among evangelical Christians. Several organizations have
sprung up to help evangelical parents and religious leaders organize
released-time programs. But even among evangelicals there are
mixed reactions to the idea. Some evangelical Christians are strong
proponents of providing their students with some religious instruction
during the school week. Others, who are especially unhappy with
what they see as a pervasively secular curriculum, don't think
released time is enough. They want to see more teaching about
religion in the curriculum, though most realize that such teaching
must be objective and academic. Still others have given up on
the public schools altogether and are home-schooling or sending
their kids to religious schools.


Although schools are under no obligation to
allow released-time programs, doing so may well send a positive
message to religious parents. Of course, schools may not discriminate
among religions; all groups must be treated the same. But if properly
organized by the various religious communities that choose to
participate, released time can meaningfully accommodate the religious
needs of students and parents.