Under South Carolina law, schools may excuse a student to participate in religious instruction upon receiving a written request from a parent. A 2007 opinion from the South Carolina Attorney General concluded that students are not considered absent from school when they are attending religious instruction classes, thus giving parents the right for their child to attend Released Time.
As a best practice, a Released Time program in South Carolina should obtain permission from the local school board for students to participate in the program.
The South Carolina Released Time program would also need to ensure compliance with the court approved guideposts for all Released Time programs.
1) The school cannot fund the Released Time program, other than de minimis administrative costs (such as the costs of a school board approving a local Released Time policy).
2) Released Time programs cannot take place on school premises; and
3) Student participation in Released Time programs must be voluntary. There cannot be any coercion on the part of any school official.
However, these three points are not exclusive. One should conduct thorough research on the latest state and federal laws and court decisions to determine if there are any updated guidelines for a Released Time program to follow.
Furthermore, high schools can award academic credits for participation in a Released Time program provided that the programs meet certain requirements.
Keep in mind that school officials are not required to approve a program. However, with community support, a carefully researched approach, and a proposal consistent with state law, you should expect success in gaining approval for the program.
S.C. Code Ann. § 59-1-460
“(A) The school district board of trustees may adopt a policy that authorizes a student to be excused from school to attend a class in religious instruction conducted by a private entity if:
(1) the student’s parent or guardian gives written consent;
(2) the sponsoring entity maintains attendance records and makes them available to the public school the student attends;
(3) transportation to and from the place of instruction, including transportation for students with disabilities, is the complete responsibility of the sponsoring entity, parent, or guardian;
(4) the sponsoring entity makes provisions for and assumes liability for the student who is excused; and
(5) no public funds are expended and no public school personnel are involved in providing the religious instruction.
(B) It is the responsibility of a participating student to make up any missed schoolwork. However, no student may be released from a core academic subject class to attend a religious instruction class. While in attendance in a religious instruction class pursuant to this section, a student is not considered to be absent from school.”
S.C. Code Ann. § 59-39-112
“(A) A school district board of trustees may award high school students no more than two elective Carnegie units for the completion of released time classes in religious instruction as specified in Section 59-1-460 if:
(1) for the purpose of awarding elective Carnegie units, the released time classes in religious instruction are evaluated on the basis of purely secular criteria that are substantially the same criteria used to evaluate similar classes at established private high schools for the purpose of determining whether a student transferring to a public high school from a private high school will be awarded elective Carnegie units for such classes. However, any criteria that released time classes must be taken at an accredited private school is not applicable for the purpose of awarding Carnegie unit credits for released time classes; and
(2) the decision to award elective Carnegie units is neutral as to, and does not involve any test for, religious content or denominational affiliation.
(B) For the purpose of subsection (A)(1), secular criteria may include, but are not limited to, the following:
(1) number of hours of classroom instruction time;
(2) review of the course syllabus which reflects the course requirements and materials used;
(3) methods of assessment used in the course; and
(4) whether the course was taught by a certified teacher.
(C) The provisions of subsection (A)(1) also shall be satisfied if a school district leaves the evaluation and assessment function for an off-campus released time class to an accredited private school, and accepts the off-campus released time transfer of credit without individually assessing the quality or subject matter of the class, trusting the private school accreditation process to ensure adequate academic standards.”
S.C. Code Ann. Regs. 43-234(II)(H)(2)
“No more than two units may be awarded to a student for released-time classes in religious instruction.”
2007 S.C. Op. Att’y Gen. No. WL 419400, at *4
“Generally, school districts have the authority to adopt policies concerning absences from school. I would note, however, that Section 59-1-460(B), enacted since that opinion was issued, specifically states that ‘[w]hile in attendance in a religious instruction class pursuant to this section, a student is not considered to be absent from school.’ Therefore, it appears that the a school district's authority to adopt policies regarding absences would not carry over to attendance at religious instruction classes.”
1996 S.C. Op. Att’y Gen. No. 49, *2
“Any religious instruction released-time policy adopted by a local school board would be subject to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides in pertinent part, that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The religious liberty guarantees expressed by the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses have been held to be applicable to the individual states by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Smith v. Smith, 523 F.2d 121 (4th Cir. 1975)
In Smith, a lawsuit challenged the Harrisonburg, Virginia Released Time program whereby public school students were released during school hours for religious instruction off school premises by a nonprofit organization supported by a council of churches. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals relied on Zorach v. Clauson to uphold the program. The court found the program to be constitutional because it (1) had a secular purpose in accommodating the wishes of the parents, (2) did not excessively entangle the state with religion since the religious instruction did not take place in the class rooms, and (3) its primary effect neither advanced nor inhibited religion. The court concluded that “public school cooperation with [released time programs] is a largely passive and administratively wise response to a plenitude of parental assertions of the right to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” Id. at 125.
Moss v. Spartanburg County School District Seven, 683 F.3d 599 (4th Cir. 2012)
In Moss, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a South Carolina school district’s practice of awarding academic credit through a religiously-affiliated private school, reiterating that Zorach is good law and holding that Released Time programs, and the academic credit received for them, is an accommodation of the parents’ right to choose the type of education their child receives.
* The rulings of the 4th Circuit of Appeals are binding precedent in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.