Recently Americans United noticed a disturbing trend: State legislatures are pushing bills that would allow public schools to offer academic credit for “released time” programs. Indiana and Tennessee have already passed released time bills this year, and the Alabama House just passed their bill, HB 291, on Thursday. (Check out the letter our Alabama Chapter sent opposing HB 291.)
Released time programs authorize public school students to leave school property during the school day to receive religious instruction. We find such programs problematic because they promote and give a special advantage to religious instruction. The Supreme Court, however, has said that these programs may be constitutional if they do no more than accommodate student schedules. The Constitution prohibits these classes from taking place on school grounds, expending public funds on them and school officials from promoting the program.
But now state legislatures are trying to pass laws that do way more than merely accommodate a student’s schedule. This new slate of bills would allow public schools to award academic credit to students for attending religious classes. Of course, awarding academic credit for religious instruction promotes and incentivizes students to participate in released time. And as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, public schools that promote religious instruction are violating the Constitution.
Furthermore, these bills authorize academic credit for purely devotional classes, rather than for objective, secular courses. That means a student could take a released time class that teaches that the Bible is a true and literal historical record. Or students earn public school credit for attending confirmation classes or classes that require them to memorize Bible verses or pray. The First Amendment prohibits public schools from offering similar classes onsite, so surely it prohibits awarding public school credit for the same courses taught at a religious school. Released time courses cannot – and should not – be used to get around the Constitution.
Lastly, awarding credit for religious instruction creates pressure for students to participate in released time programs. When schools have released time, it is most often students of the majority faith who leave school to attend the religious instruction. That leaves non-religious students and students who belong to minority faiths without access to daytime religious courses left back in school. Their lack of participation in released time will be obvious, and they will likely feel ostracized by their classmates and teachers for not enrolling in a religious course. For example, students in schools with released time programs have reported that their teachers have prohibited non-participating students from doing schoolwork or any other activity while the rest of the students attended a released time course. Awarding credit for these courses would only increase the pressure on these students.
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