Cut the Credit for Release Time: Dan Barker

FFRF’s New South Carolina Lawsuit

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit in June against the Spartanburg (S.C.) School District, for granting academic credit for religious release-time classes, with the help of local parent plaintiffs and attorney George Daly. The Foundation was asked to submit an op-ed piece on the subject for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Dan Barker wrote the following:

By Dan Barker

Once a week when I was in the sixth grade, in 1960, we students at Carver Elementary in Long Beach, Calif., marched out to the kickball field. We formed three lines at the gate leading to vehicles waiting to transport us to “release time” religious instruction off campus. The Protestant and Catholic lines were roughly the same length, and I remember looking across the gap between us and thinking, “Oh, so Robert is a Catholic. And so is Wendy.” The third line–heading to the synagogue–was very short. I don’t recall if any kids stayed back in class, nor can I imagine what they did during that empty hour.

The little bus took us to a church basement where a sweet woman made us memorize bible verses and told us about the love of Jesus. It was not my church, but it was Protestant, so I felt comfortable. As a result, I can still quote Genesis 12:1-3, which ends with “in thee [Abram] shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” The teacher said this was a true prophecy that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, would come from the Jews. By becoming Christians, the whole world could be saved. We ended with a prayer to God “in Jesus’ name” before returning to the public school and going home.

If grades were given, I would have gotten an A+. Coming from a believing Christian family, I had the advantage of years of Sunday School and church attendance. But what if my family had been nonbelievers? What if I had dutifully memorized the verses and fulfilled all requirements and then informed the teacher that I doubted the truth of those words, declaring that the bible is bunk? What if I had had the independence of mind to tell her she was deluded to pretend that those crazy stories actually happened in history? What grade might she have given me? It is clear that the point of that class was not educational. It was devotional, sectarian and proselytizing. It was a good way to get the gospel to schoolchildren.

The question of state/church separation did not cross my 11-year-old mind, and why would it? That class underscored what I was learning at my own church on Sundays. (So why did I need it? It was not as if I were deprived of religious opportunity.) I now see that the fact that those classes have to be held off campus is a signal that there is something wrong with them–something legally wrong. Otherwise, the public school would proudly include them in the curriculum.

This is a free country. Families and private organizations have total liberty to practice and promulgate their religious ideas, as long as they do not force them on the rest of us. This is why the government, at all levels, must remain diligently neutral, neither endorsing nor hindering individual religious freedom. On religious matters, public and private must not mix. As Jefferson phrased it, there should be a “wall of separation between church and state.”

The 1952 Supreme Court “release time” decision was a mistake–partly because it allows the schools to be mined by outside religious organizations which see children as a mission field–but it is a mistake we must live with. We cannot legally challenge it. Besides, it would be difficult to prove that a public school has a deliberate religious intention by merely “releasing” students who voluntarily participate, even if that is exactly the case in many districts.

But giving an official grade for such classes clearly crosses the line. It breaches Jefferson’s wall. Assigning credit turns a debatably neutral arrangement into one that clearly takes sides. It gives unlicensed Sunday School teachers, priests, missionaries and evangelists–whose realm is outside the secular school (even ostensibly outside the natural universe)–the power to decide what happens inside the public school. What power is greater than influencing the GPA, hence the future opportunity, of a student? What better way to punish a doubter? If the schools cannot legally offer such courses, how can they give credit for them?

In public school you don’t have to believe what is taught; you just have to know it. In religion it is usually the other way around. Our secular constitution allows for faith, of course, but it cannot reward or punish it. Assigning official grades to believing students puts disbelieving students, or students who believe the “wrong” religion (in the eyes of the teacher), at an academic disadvantage. It is an example of the very problem our founders strove to eliminate when they produced the first constitution in history to officially separate religion from government.

I went to public schools my entire life except for kindergarten, when I attended Hawthorne Christian School. I learned the original Pledge of Allegiance there, with the beautiful phrase “one nation indivisible” firmly entrenched in my mind to this day. Ironically, when I entered first grade in 1955 at Carver Elementary, I had to relearn the Pledge with the words “under God” inserted, after Congress tampered with it in 1954. Or I tried to relearn it. The way you first learn something is the way it tends to stick in your mind.

The United States of America first learned its freedom by separating religion and government. That’s the way it should stick in our minds.

Dan Barker, Foundation Copresident, is author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist (FFRF, 1992) and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Ulysses Press, 2008).

Freedom From Religion Foundation