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Released-time academic credit upheld by federal court

A federal appeals court ruled unanimously Friday that students in public schools can appropriately receive academic credit for released-time religious classes taught during school hours.

The decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld a South Carolina program that allows students to receive elective school credit for religious courses taken off-campus during school hours. The program was challenged in 2009 by a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which claimed that the program is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion").

"The program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment," the ruling states. "(The program) accommodates the 'genuine and independent choices of parents and students to pursue (religious) instruction.’"

The full court opinion can be found through this link.

"This is a big win for public school students and for religious education," said Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has been involved in representation for the case. "The court's opinion shows that public schools can make room for student religious exercise."

According to Mark Walsh of Education Week, those who were challenging the program contended that giving credit for a released-time religious course is a way of promoting or advancing a specific religion — which they feel is not consistent with the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

"Released-time students are not just getting an excused absence to pursue religious instruction," the challengers say in court papers. "Their religious life is being promoted and approved."

"For more than 50 years, courts have routinely held that off-campus released-time programs do not violate the Constitution by promotion religion, but merely accommodate the wishes of students and parents," said Dan Wilson of the Becket Fund. "Nationwide, more than 250,000 children in 32 states participate in released-time programs each year."

In Utah, more than 84,000 students in grades 9-12 participate in the LDS Church’s seminary alone, the vast majority of which are involved in public school released-time programs. Although there are certain significant benefits that come to both students and schools through the released-time program, Mark Peterson of the Utah State Office of Education said Utah public schools have not granted credit for released-time classes since 1981.

"At that time," Peterson said, "the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the case of Lanner v. Wimmer involving a released-time for credit program in Logan. The court found that while released-time programs are Constitutional, granting credit for the courses was a breach of the establishment clause.

"Since Utah is part of the 10th Circuit," he continued, "that is the decision we must abide by."

Peterson also pointed out that while the 4th Circuit Court ruling is "interesting," it also "involves some criteria for granting credit that are somewhat problematic."

"For example," he said, "the school board would have to check on the number of hours of instruction, certify teachers, review the course syllabus and course materials and the method of assessment. That is a discussion school board members and religious leaders from churches offering released-time programs would have to engage in" before any thought of trying to apply the 4th Circuit Court ruling to Utah could be considered.

In addition to more than 84,000 seminary students in Utah, an additional 112,000-plus students are involved in the LDS Church’s seminary programs around the United States. Most participate in early-morning programs, where students meet at their church or at a centrally located home before school for scriptural training and discussion. None of these programs involve academic credit, nor are they likely to as a result of the recent judicial ruling, which church spokesman Scott Trotter said "will have little to no impact on the church's seminary program."