Grade for Practicing Religion Is Challenged in Federal Court
A national state/church watchdog and two parent complainants in Spartanburg County, S.C., are filing a federal lawsuit today in U.S. District Court, Spartanburg Division, Greenville, S.C., challenging the awarding of academic credits for evangelical release-time instruction.
The Supreme Court, in the 1954 Zorach decision, approved release-time instruction, in which public school students may attend privately-conducted religious education classes off-campus during the school day with parental permission.
In 2006, the South Carolina Legislature went beyond the dictates of Zorach and approved the granting of academic credit for release-time religious instruction. This means students taking a devotional class whose purpose is to teach them the meaning of Christ's resurrection in their lives" may receive a public school grade for the course.
"Citizens are free to believe as they wish, but our schools are not free to promote religion," said Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The Foundation, a national group based in Madison, Wis., has members in South Carolina and Spartanburg County.
"A public school could not constitutionally teach this course, but in South Carolina, a student can now get a public school academic credit for taking this class," explained George Daly, a well-known North Carolina civil rights attorney who is representing the plaintiffs.
"The school has delegated to a church what it cannot do itself. Students aren't just released to study religion, as Zorach allowed. They get a public school grade for practicing religion," Daly added.
Spartanburg (S.C.) High School had offered a release-time option in the past, but interest in it dwindled until the accreditation change. In 2007, Spartanburg High School revived its release-time course, which is taught by South Carolina Bible Education In School Time (SCBEST).
One of the purposes of the evangelical organization includes helping the student "make a rock-solid, lifelong commitment to Christianity." SCBEST "regards the Bible as the word of God and will teach it as such."
"This means a student can more easily qualify for a scholarship based on GPA if she commits to follow Christ for life!" said Barker.
The local plaintiffs each have children attending Spartanburg High School, and are "adversely affected" by the implementation of the accreditation policy, according to the legal complaint.
Spartanburg High School apparently supplied the released-time ministry with the names and addresses of all rising tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade students, who then received a letter inviting them to participate in the Christian education. The plaintiff parents, according to the complaint, found this offensive, and believe it is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The policy places the plaintiffs' two minor children, one in who will be entering 11th grade and one who will be a senior in the fall, at an academic disadvantage based on religion, according to the legal complaint. Academic grades determine class rank, and class rank determines eligibility for South Carolina Legislative Incentives for Future Excellence (LIFE) scholarships and for other educational opportunities.
"Defendant aids its release time provider in carrying out its religious mission by the threat of enforcement of its compulsory attendance powers against students enrolled in the released time course," the Foundation complaint charges.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, established as a national group in 1978, has brought more than 40 lawsuits to protect the constitutional principle of the separation between church and state. Among its legal victories, the Foundation won a decision by the 6th U.S. Court Court of Appeals in 2004 barring Christian evangelical religious instruction in the public schools in Rhea Co. (Dayton), Tenn.
District Judge R. Bryan Harwell, a George W. Bush appointee, has drawn the case.