Today a federal judge ruled that Spartanburg County School District No. 7  did not violate the Constitution by allowing students to earn elective credit for released time courses. U.S. District Court Judge Henry Herlong issued an emphatically worded order in Freedom of Religion Foundation v. Spartanburg County School District No. 7, holding that the District’s released time policy does not endorse religion, but “is a passive measure on behalf of public school officials to accommodate the desire of its students to receive religious instruction.”
In 2009, Spartanburg County School District No. 7 was sued by the atheist activist group Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with the parents of two high school students, for implementing the South Carolina Released Time Credit Act. The law, passed in 2006, allows school districts to give elective credit to students who complete released time courses in religious instruction.
Judge Herlong found that “the policy’s plain language and the School District’s implementation of the released time policy evidence an intent to passively accommodate religion and to insulate itself from pervasive monitoring and oversight of the overtly religious instruction.” The Court also found that the District’s practice of “honoring academic credit” for released time was “unremarkable,” not unlike the general practice of public schools to honor credits “from an accredited private school.”
For more than 50 years, courts have routinely held that off-campus released time programs do not violate the Constitution by promoting religion, but merely accommodate the wishes of students’ parents. Nation-wide, more than 250,000 children in 32 states participate in released time programs each year. In South Carolina alone, more than 12,000 students attend released time classes each week.
“Judge Herlong’s ruling today says that this case was really a complaint about nothing: like Gertrude Stein said, there’s no there there,” says Eric Kniffin, Legal Counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the school district, along with Kenneth Darr and Kenneth Nettles of Spartanburg firm Lyles, Darr & Clark, LLP. “The District should be commended for standing up for common sense, and defending the rights of parents everywhere.”
The Court’s decision has implications for released time programs and accredited private schools across South Carolina and throughout the country.