Court: FFRF Can Sue Over S.C. School Religious Education

A U.S. District Court in South Carolina has ruled that a Freedom From Religion Foundation lawsuit against the Spartanburg County School District may proceed to the discovery process and to trial.

The suit, filed in June 2009, challenges the awarding of academic credits for religious released-time instruction. The Foundation’s co-plaintiffs are Robert Moss and Ellen Tillett, parents of two current Spartanburg High School students.

The Dec. 17 ruling, issued in Greenville by Senior U.S. District Judge Henry Herlong Jr., grants the plaintiffs standing to sue and pursue the case as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In a 1952 case, Zorach v. Clauson, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed public school children to be released for one hour a week for religious instruction. In 1981, the Tenth Circuit ruled in Lanner v. Wimmer that schools could additionally give credit for having taken an elective for released-time religious education.

“The South Carolina case goes beyond what was allowed by either of those cases,” said George Daly, Foundation attorney. “It allows the religious school to give students an academic grade for religious studies or practice. This means that a student can get an A+ for whatever reason the religious school wants to give an A+ for. It could be for ‘exceptional piety,’ for example. That grade is then accepted at face value by the public school and the student can gain an academic advantage for religious reasons.”

Spartanburg High School had offered a released-time option in the past, but interest in it dwindled until the accreditation change in 2007. The course is taught by South Carolina Bible Education In School Time (SCBEST). One stated purpose of the evangelical group is to help students “make a rock-solid, lifelong commitment to Christianity.” SCBEST “regards the bible as the word of God and will teach it as such.”

Spartanburg High School apparently supplied the released-time ministry with the names and addresses of all 10th, 11th and 12th grade students, who then received a letter inviting them to participate in the Christian education.

Giving academic credit for outside religious classes is constitutionally suspect, said Daly, who is a prominent North Carolina civil rights lawyer. “We are strongly of the opinion that this practice offends the Constitution. A school cannot delegate to a religious organization the power to give a public school grade, any more that it can delegate to a church the power to say who should be allowed to run for sheriff.” The judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause claim.

The School District is represented by the Becket Fund For Religious Liberty.

Foundation Co-President Dan Barker was incredulous when the suit was originally filed that a public school would let a group like SCBEST set academic standards. “This means a student can more easily qualify for a scholarship based on GPA if she commits to follow Christ for life!”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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