The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals refused to accept a petition for en banc review filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, after a three-judge panel approved academic credit for released-time instruction on June 28.
FFRF, and two sets of parent plaintiffs with children in the school district in Spartanburg, S.C., challenged the practice as a state entanglement with religion, which favored students of the dominant religious faith. The group filed suit in 2009.
The school district delegated grading power over its students and evaluation of the course material to both the Spartanburg County Education in School Time (SCBEST) and a private Christian school, Oakbrook Preparatory Academy. FFRF contends that essentially the district has added a devotional religious course as a public school elective and gave the bible school grading power over it. “If the Bible School course consisted of five hours a week of praying on bended knee and Oakbrook approved it, academic credit would nevertheless ensue as a matter of course,” FFRF’s petition noted.
The Supreme Court, in approving released time instruction in 1952, never hinted it could be treated as the equivalent of attending French or math class. It was intended as accommodation, and public schools were to have a ‘hands-off’ approach, with no academic reward for undergoing proselytization off-site an hour a week.
In its legal challenge, handled pro bono by attorney George Daly, FFRF documented that the superintendent gave the released time group names and addresses of children in order to publicize the program.
The public school has no control of the grades. Schools may be compelled to accommodate devotional religious instruction, but may not be required to provide it, or hand out grades for it, maintains FFRF.
FFRF thanks its plaintiffs and Daly for challenging the violation. FFRF is considering its options.