The Supreme Court has been pretty consistent in saying that public schools may not sponsor prayer, Bible reading and other religious activities.
There is, however, a legal loophole. In a 1952 decision called Zorach v. Clauson, the high court permitted a scheme whereby public schools can allow students to leave school during the day for religious instruction elsewhere. It’s known as “released time.”
Released time is popular in parts of Utah, where the powerful Mormon Church often erects buildings for religious instruction near public schools. Over the years, I’ve seen reports of it surfacing in other states as well.
But many public school jurisdictions find it impractical. Public schools these days tend to pack a lot of academic instruction into the school day. Classes I remember from “back in the day” – driver education, shop, home economics, etc. – are being jettisoned in many schools. Allowing students to surrender some of their precious class time for religious instruction is seen as counterproductive.
A host of logistical issues are raised as well. What happens to the students who choose not to go to released time? Denying them academic instruction because some kids are leaving the school for Bible study seems unfair.
Despite these problems, Alabama legislators are moving forward with a plan to expand released time to that state. The Birmingham News reports that a bill sponsored by Rep. Blaine Galliher, a Republican from Rainbow City, would allow local schools to establish released-time programs for high school students.
The News reported that Galliher took up the bill “at the request of one of his constituents, Joseph Kennedy, a member of Southside Baptist Church near Gadsden. Kennedy said he would like to see a non-profit group teach creationism to public school students if Galliher’s bill becomes law.”
So that’s what this is really all about – creationism. Under Galliher’s plan, a student could spend the morning learning evolution in a science class and then leave in the afternoon to be told by a fundamentalist minister that what he learned in class is all wrong.
How exactly will this help the state of Alabama?
Worse yet, Galliher’s bill allows for students to receive academic credit for the religion classes they take. Here’s where the bill really goes off the rails. It’s bad enough to let students disrupt the school day by leaving for a Bible study or indoctrination in creationism. Giving them academic credit for it is misguided and possibly unconstitutional.
Galliher’s bill passed the House Education Policy Committee on a voice vote yesterday, but not everyone was convinced. Committee member Rep. Phil Williams, a Huntsville Republican, opposed the measure, saying schools would do better to put more emphasis on math and science.
“The future jobs are in that area,” Williams said. “I think we need to be augmenting that area.” Williams also said, “I learned religion at home. Most people do.”
Williams is right. There’s a place for religious instruction: at home and at whatever house of worship a family chooses. There are limited numbers of hours available during the public school day. They should be used for academic instruction in secular subjects.