What is Released Time?

Donn Saylor

Released time is an aspect of United States law regarding the public school system and the permissibility of religious instruction to take place during public school hours. The idea is not considered a violation of the separation of church and state so long as the religious instruction meets certain conditions. Several states operate released time programs in their public school systems; Mormon students make up one of the country's largest communities of released time program attendees.

The United States Supreme Court has decided two cases concerning released time in public schools.
The United States Supreme Court has decided two cases concerning released time in public schools.

In 1905, the first discussions regarding released time programs began. Proponents suggested that public schools be closed one extra day per week so that students who wanted a religious education could attain one at a location other than the public school building. The idea proved immensely popular, and, by the 1940s, 1.5 million students were taking part in released time programs. Two notable Supreme Court cases eventually had a major impact on the long-term popularity of released time programs.

Released time programs are not viewed as infringements of the church and state law. This is because of three factors to which all release time programs must adhere. First, all religious instruction must take place at an off-campus location and cannot utilize any public school building or property. Second, public funding cannot support the instruction of a released time program. Finally, the students taking part in the program must have full consent from their parents.

These conditions were formed in large part by two cases that eventually reached the Supreme Court. In 1945, McCollum v. Board of Education involved a mother suing her son's school because he was harassed and intimidated by school administrators after declining to take part in a released time program. Although the program was held in the public school building during school hours, a clear violation of the law, all lower courts ruled in favor of the school. The Supreme Court, however, saw things differently, and they judged in favor of Mrs. McCollum. Because public buildings and tax dollars were being used for the program, the Court ruled, the school's actions were unconstitutional.

The second case to make it before the Supreme Court was a few years later in 1952, when Zorach v. Clauson reached the highest court in the country, challenging New York State education laws. This case once again questioned the constitutionality of released time programs, but the details of the case were very different than McCollum's. In this instance, no school buildings or taxpayer dollars were supporting the religious instruction; the public school was simply allowing the students, at their parents' request, to utilize a released time program at an off-campus location during school hours. The Court ruled in favor of the state of New York and the law was upheld.

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