FFRF seeks review of released time ruling in South Carolina

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a petition with the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seeking its review of a decision by a three-judge panel approving 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. The group filed suit in 2009. 

The court ruled against FFRF, on June 28.

The petition seeks review on key issues in the case, including whether granting grading power to a bible school entangles church and state and whether the district’s assistance and support to the bible school class unconstitutionally advances religion.

“Review by the full court is imperative because of the misguided panel opinion and the important constitutional principles involved,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. She added that the panel decision failed to address controlling Supreme Court precedent, Larken v. Grendel’s Den, which held that the government may not delegate its discretionary powers to a religious institution. Here, the school district delegated grading power over its students and evaluation of the course material to both the Spartanburg County Education in School Time (SCBEST) and a private Christian school, Oakbrook Preparatory Academy.

FFRF’s petition states that “The district has added a devotional religious course as a public school elective and given the Bible School grading power over it. . . . The district’s unwritten and unsupervised delegation of course review to Oakbrook leaves Oakbrook at large to pass along a grade for any course of religious instruction or exercise that it wishes to aid. If the Bible School course consisted of five hours a week of praying on bended knee and Oakbrook approved it, academic credit would nevertheless ensue as a matter of course.”

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.

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.

“Why not grant two credits for bar mitzvah instruction? What next? Academic credit for kids going to Sunday school?” asked Gaylor.

The public school has no control of the grades. Schools may be compelled to accommodate devotional religious instruction, but may not be required to provide it — or hand out grades for it, maintains FFRF.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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