General Rule: Released time programs 57 may be constitutional if the religious classes take
place off school grounds, if no public school funds are expended, and if school officials or
teachers do not promote program attendance through coercion or other means. 58
Are public schools required to enact released time programs? No. While a school may
choose to enact a released time program, it is never required to do so.
Who bears the expense of released time programs? The religious organization that sponsors
the program is responsible for all expenses. Such expenses include, but are not limited
to, solicitation, applications, distribution of notices, and permission slips. The public school
may not bear any of the program expenses nor participate in promoting the program. 59
May a religious organization rent school facilities for a released time program? A public
school may not rent its facilities for such purposes. The location and timing of the religious
classes, combined with the impressionable ages of the students, could create the erroneous
impression of official school support for the program. Importantly, under any circumstances,
a released time program may only take place off school premises. 60
What problems can arise when released time programs are instituted? A released time program
must be structured to avoid any perception of public school promotion or endorsement
of religious instruction. If any element of the program gives the impression of public school
support for religion -- or if any actual support is given -- then the program will likely be
struck down by the courts as a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Further, students who choose not to participate in the program may feel isolated or ostracized.
These programs can be divisive and may be unfair to children who adhere to religions
which are too small to set up their own religious instruction classes or which do not participate
in such programs. Also, released time programs disrupt classroom activities and detract
from the time children need to master their school work. School officials should be sensitive
to these problems and structure the released time program to avoid them. Alternatively, officials
may simply choose not to implement released time programs at all.
Elementary School Parent Objects to Released Time Program as Unconstitutional
An elementary school has instituted a "released time" religious education program. On
Thursday afternoons, students are released from regular classes to attend religious classes
conducted off school premises. Only students who have written requests from
their parents may attend the religious classes, and nonparticipating students remain in
their classroom for a silent reading period. Rebecca Segall is a nonparticipating student
in the third grade. Rebecca's father objects to the released time program because he
believes that the school is unconstitutionally supporting religious education, since public
school teachers police the program's attendance and regular classroom activities
come to a halt for the program. When school officials hear that Mr. Segall is planning on
legally challenging the program, they call a meeting to discuss the issue.
What conclusion should the school officials reach regarding Mr. Segall's claim?
This released time program would likely be found constitutional since it takes place off school
grounds, involves no expenditure of public funds, and is not promoted by school officials. The
fact that regular class activities are suspended during the program, and that school personnel
monitor possible truancy, is not sufficient to make the program unconstitutional. However, it is
enough to be disruptive to the ordinary educational activity of the school, and on that basis alone,
the school district should feel free not to continue the program.