The Freedom From Religion Foundation will appeal a district court decision in South Carolina that upheld the Spartanburg County School District’s policy granting academic credit for religious released-time classes held off-campus. The case now goes before the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Although U.S. District Court Judge Henry Herlong found that FFRF had standing to sue, he granted summary judgment to the school district in his April 5 decision. FFRF and two district families with schoolchildren challenged the policy’s constitutionality, arguing that close cooperation between the district and religious educators had the primary effect of advancing religion.
A central issue is whether the policy is constitutional under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Zorach v. Clauson (1952), which allows schools “to accommodate their schedules” to release students during the school day to receive outside religious instruction.
FFRF maintains that Spartanburg’s practices go far beyond the court’s ruling in Zorach. FFRF contends the machinery of the public schools is being used to promote and not merely accommodate religion.
FFRF’s lawsuit charges the school developed and implemented its policy “in concert” with bible instructors, who were allowed to promote the program in classrooms and at class registration. The district also agreed to handle student discipline for major behavioral issues. Grades were given and even factored into students’ grade-point averages. FFRF maintains that under the circumstances, the district’s involvement violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“The court’s decision is disappointing to those of us who support the separation between religion and government,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Public schools should not be allowed to grant school credit for devotional courses that couldn’t constitutionally be taught in public schools.”
“We thank the local parent plaintiffs — Robert Moss and Ellen Tillet — who made possible this lawsuit, and attorney George Daly for his pro bono legal work,” said Co-President Dan Barker.