Release Time Program
The name of the arrangement by which local public school boards permit students to be dismissed from classes prior to the completion of the regular school day for purposes of religious instruction.
The FIRST AMENDMENT to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion in both belief and practice under the Free Exercise Clause but prohibits the government from aiding and recognizing any religion under the Establishment Clause. Such constitutional mandates are binding upon the states through the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. The state must remain neutral in its treatment of religion; at the same time, it must refrain from
infringing upon a person's right to practice his or her faith. Since their creation in 1914 in Gary, Indiana, release time programs have provided a means by which students who otherwise would be deprived of an opportunity to receive religious instruction can learn about their religion. However, such programs have come under judicial scrutiny because of the claim that the involvement of public school boards in religious concerns violates the Establishment Clause.
In the 1948 case of Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 68 S. Ct. 461, 92 L. Ed. 649, a release time program provided by the Champaign, Illinois, public schools was alleged to be unconstitutional. The schools offered classroom space once per week for one period of 30 to 45 minutes during the school day to private teachers to instruct interested students in religion. The students who were "released" for religious training had to present signed parental-request forms in order to attend such courses. All other students were sent to other parts of the school building to finish the school day while this religious instruction took place. Both the "release time" students and the other students had to satisfy attendance requirements in order to comply with compulsory education laws of the state. A taxpayer named Vashti McCollum, the parent of a student, sought MANDAMUS to compel the school board to adopt and enforce regulations prohibiting all religious instruction in public schools. The state trial and appellate courts denied the writ, and the plaintiff appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the involvement of the public school in the program of religious education was so great that it violated the First Amendment. The Court based its reasoning on the facts that public classrooms financed by taxpayers were being used for religious purposes and that, furthermore, the public system of compulsory education was being used to promote religion.
Another challenge was brought concerning a release time program in the New York City public schools in the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 72 S. Ct. 679, 96 L. Ed. 954. In that case, students participated in the program only upon the written request of their parents. Such pupils were "released," or permitted to leave school, for one hour of regular class time once per week, to attend religious instruction at sectarian centers. All other students remained in school. Church officials were responsible for making weekly attendance reports to the schools. The plaintiff, Tessim Zorach, a taxpayer and the parent of a student, brought an action in state court to review the action of the school board in permitting such a program. The case was brought on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by the plaintiff, who had been unsuccessful at the state court level. The high court affirmed the decision of the state courts, finding that the program did not violate the Constitution. It distinguished the facts of this case from those in McCollum. Here, the only thing that was provided by the school was an accommodation of schedules, in order to enable students to participate in a program of religious instruction. To deny the children the time to attend such instruction off of the school premises would implicitly convey a government attitude of hostility toward religion that might be violative of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.
School boards have discretion in the creation of release time programs for their students, subject to the safeguards of religious freedom. Although some cooperation between public schools and sectarian officials is essential to the development of mutually agreeable arrangements, those programs that involve an excessive and complex interaction of church and state will not pass constitutional muster.