Under Tennessee law, schools shall excuse a student to participate in religious instruction upon receiving a written request from a parent. The students may be dismissed for up to one class period per day to attend Released Time.
As a result, a Released Time program in Tennessee would need to obtain permission from the local school board for students to participate in the program. It would also need to ensure compliance with the court approved guideposts for Released Time programs. These include:
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.
Additionally, 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.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-2-130
(a) As used in this section, “released time course” means a period of time during which a student is excused from school to attend a course in religious moral instruction taught by an independent entity off school property.
(b) A local board of education may adopt a policy that excuses a student from school to attend a released time course in religious moral instruction for no more than one (1) class period per school day; provided, that:
(1) The student's parent or legal guardian signs a written consent form prior to the student's participation in the released time course;
(2) The released time course shall be conducted off public school property;
(3) The independent entity maintains attendance records and makes the records available to the LEA and the local board of education;
(A) Any transportation to and from the place of instruction, including transportation for students with disabilities, is the responsibility of the independent entity, parent, legal guardian, or student;
(B) Notwithstanding subdivision (b)(4)(A), a local board of education that provides school transportation services for students under chapter 6, part 21 of this title may provide students attending a released time course with transportation to and from the place of instruction if the independent entity reimburses the LEA for the costs and expenses of providing the transportation services;
(5) The independent entity assumes liability for the student attending the released time course from the time that the student leaves the school until the student returns to the school;
(6) No public funds are expended and no public school personnel are involved in providing the instruction for released time courses;
(7) The student assumes responsibility for any missed schoolwork;
(8) The principal of the school, or the principal's designee, shall determine the classes from which the student may be excused to participate in the released time course; provided, that the student may not be excused to participate in a released time course during any class in which subject matter is taught for which the state requires an examination for state or federal accountability purposes; and
(9) The released time courses shall coincide with school class schedules.
(c) The LEA, the local board of education, the local governing authority, and the state shall not be liable for the student who participates in the released time course.
(d) The written consent form under subdivision (b)(1) shall provide a disclaimer that:
(1) Eliminates any actual or perceived affirmative school sponsorship or attribution to the LEA of an endorsement of a religious instruction; and
(2) Waives any right of the student's parent or legal guardian to hold the school, the LEA, the employees of the school or LEA, or the state liable for the student participating in a released time course.
(e) Instructors of released time courses are not required to be licensed or certificated pursuant to chapter 5 of this title. Instructors and other employees of the released time courses shall be hired by the independent entity.
(f) A student who attends a released time course shall be credited with time spent as if the student attended school, and the time shall be calculated as part of the actual school day.
(g) (1) A local board of education may adopt a policy to award students credit for work completed in a released time course that is substantiated by a transcript from the entity that provided the released time course. If a board adopts a policy in accordance with this subsection (g), then a student may be awarded one unit* of elective credit for the completion of each released time course. *Amended by HB0680 from one half (1/2) unit effective on July 1, 2023.
(2) In order to determine whether elective credit may be awarded for the student's completion of a released time course, the local board of education shall evaluate the course in a neutral manner that does not involve any test for religious content or denominational affiliation. For purposes of this subsection (g), the secular criteria used to evaluate a released time course may include:
(A) The amount of classroom instruction time;
(B) The course syllabus, which reflects the course requirements and any materials used in the course;
(C) Methods of assessment used in the course; and
(D) Whether the course was taught by an instructor licensed pursuant to chapter 5 of this title.
(h) A public school shall, upon the request of a student's parent or legal guardian, excuse a student from school to attend a released time course in religious moral instruction for one (1) hour per school day, regardless of whether the local board of education has adopted a policy under subsection (b), if the requirements listed in subdivisions (b)(1)-(9) are met. Subsections (c)-(f) of this section apply to students attending a released time course under this subsection (h).”
Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133 (1979)
In Wiley, the court ruled that a public school-sponsored Bible study course violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, the court recognized that Released Time programs are valid in Tennessee provided that they follow Zorach v. Clauson. Id. at 144. The Court held, “a program permitting the release of students from a public school during regular classroom hours to enable them to receive religious instructions of their choice from teachers other than public school teachers and at premises other than school premises, will pass Constitutional muster under both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause....” Id. at 146.