FFRF plans appeal in Spartanburg bible course dispute

The Freedom From Religion Foundation plans to appeal a district court decision out of South Carolina upholding a school policy that granted credit for religious release time into student grade point averages. The case would go before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Although U.S. District Court Judge Henry Herlong found that standing to sue, he granted summary judgment in favor of the Spartanburg County School District in his April 5 decision. FFRF challenged the constitutionality of the District’s favorable treatment of a bible course taught by a Christian group. Two district families, with FFRF, challenged the District’s support of a District policy that grants public school credit and grades for attendance at a release-time course.

FFRF and the families argued that the District’s “Released Time for Religious Instruction” policy and the close cooperation between the District and religious educators had the primary effect of advancing religion. Herlong deemed the policy a “passive measure,” writing, “Viewed from the perspective of an objective observer, the School District’s policy does no more than merely accommodate students’ desire to partake in religious instruction.”

A central issue in the case is whether the District’s policy is constitutional under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Zorach v. Clauson (1952), which allows schools “to accommodate their schedules” to release students during the school day to receive outside religious instruction.

FFRF maintains that the District’s practices go beyond the Court’s ruling in Zorach. As was the case in McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), FFRF contends, the machinery of the public schools is being used to promote religious education. The District’s activities are not “passive,” but go beyond the accommodation of religion.

FFRF’s lawsuit charges the District developed its release time policy “in concert” with bible instructors and implemented the policy in close cooperation with them. District students receive school credit for their bible coursework and the grades are factored in to their school GPAs. Bible instructors were allowed to promote the program in some District classrooms and at class registration. The District also agreed to handle student discipline for major behavioral issues. FFRF maintains that under the circumstances, the District’s involvement with the bible course violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“The Court’s decision is disappointing to those of us who support the separation between religion and government,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president said, “Public schools should not be allowed to grant school credit for religious courses.” Courts have traditionally provided the greatest constitutional protection in the public schools context, she noted.

“We thank the local plaintiffs — Robert Moss and Ellen Tillet — with students in the Spartanburg school district who made possible this lawsuit, and George Daly for his representation,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.

Read the judge's decision

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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