FFRF seeks review of Fourth Circuit’s “misguided” decision

The Freedom From Religion Foundation announced that it will seek an en banc review of a decision last Friday by a three-judge panel of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which approved academic credit for released time instruction. FFRF, and two sets of parent plaintiffs with children in the school district in Spartanburg, S.C., challenged the practice as a state entanglement with religion, which favored students of the dominant religious faith. 

In its legal challenge, handled by attorney George Daly, FFRF documented that the superintendent gave the released time group names and addresses of children in order to publicize the program. Superintendent Walter Tobin himself characterized the process as having been done “in concert” with the district and Spartanburg County Education in School Time (SCBEST). SCBEST is a religious organization whose “curriculum is deliberately structured to help the student develop a Christian world view.”

The court said the situation was equivalent to that “of a student who wishes to transfer from an accredited private school into a public school within the School District…” 

“Why not grant two credits for bar mitzvah instruction? What next? Academic credit for kids going to Sunday school?” asked Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

The court wrote: “Spartanburg Bible School entered into an arrangement with Oakbrook Preparatory School, an accredited private Christian school, by which Spartanburg Bible School could submit its grades through Oakbrook to Spartanburg High School.”

The school has no control of the grades and accepts the grades without question. Schools may be compelled to accommodate religious instruction, but should not be required to teach it — or hand out grades for it, maintains Gaylor.

FFRF pointed out that although Oakbrook was accredited, the class was taught by an unaccredited bible “school,” and this arrangement was sought out by the school district. “Now a private religious school, with no publicly elected board and with a religious mission, is being permitted to do the job of the school district,” Gaylor noted. She called it an unconstitutional delegation of governmental power to a religious institution.

The Supreme Court, in approving released time instruction in 1952, never hinted it could be treated as the equivalent of attending French or math class. It was intended as accommodation, and public schools were to have a ‘hands-off’ approach, with no academic reward for undergoing proselytization off-site an hour a week.

The court dismissed the standing of FFRF and one of its members, a parent plaintiff. The court contended the parent, and therefore FFRF, suffered no exposure, no solicitation or pressure to attend. FFRF member Ellen Tillett testified she was distressed upon hearing of the SCBEST letter, that she felt the school’s support of religious instruction showed lack of respect for individuals of differing faiths and views, and that her child was disadvantaged by the arrangement. The court found that the other plaintiff, Robert Moss, who is “of the Jewish tradition,” had standing because his family had received a letter advertising the class and therefore were made to feel more like outsiders than FFRF’s member. Both parents in part objected that their children were subjected to receiving a lower class rank because grades for released time religious instruction are factored into the GPA scores of SCBEST students.

FFRF filed suit in 2009. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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