Release Time for Religious Activities

Can public schools offer early release times for students wishing to participate in religious activities?

Public schools may release students during school hours to participate in private religious activities with parental consent. In McCollum v. Board of Education, the Court found a release time program that was supported by public funds, held during school hours, and on school grounds violated the First Amendment.

See McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948). The Court further stated that the involvement of the school in selecting and supervising the religious teachers showed support for the religious programs, and the school was an “invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes.” Id. This aid was unconstitutional.

Several years later, the Supreme Court ruled that release time programs devoid of school involvement do not violate the First Amendment. In Zorach v. Clauson the court upheld a release time program that allowed students to be released from public schools to participate in private religious activities, held at private facilities, even if during school hours. See Zorach v. Clauson 343 U.S. 306 (1952). The Court stated that a school merely accommodating a student’s religious needs does not violate First Amendment. See Id. at 311.

What to watch for in determining if your school is Violating Release Time:

Expenditure of public funds

  • Use of public school facilities during school hours (this includes bus, trailers, or any vehicle parked on school grounds)
  • Lack of parental consent to religious instruction
  • School official(s) using their authority to encourage participation
  • Release time programs are offered on a neutral basis and do not favor a particular religion
  • Students who do not participate in release time classes should not and cannot be punished
  • Release time instructors cannot solicit student participation during school hours (i.e., entering a classroom to recruit)
  • School staff should not participate in (much less be involved in instruction) at off-school release time

By Megan Roughen, FFRF’s Legal Intern for 2009/2010

Last updated February 8, 2010

Freedom From Religion Foundation