Last week, in a South Carolina case, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously for a public student’s right to receive academic credit for outside religion courses, including those that espouse a particular religious viewpoint.
The decision, from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, upheld a South Carolina program which allows students to gain elective school credit for religion courses taken off-campus during school hours.
In 2009, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Spartanburg School District 7 on behalf of two students (one atheist, one Jewish) over the Christian-focused program, claiming it was a violation of the establishment clause. The foundation also was behind a recent suit in the Midlands when a student at Irmo High School complained of being subjected to a prayer at the school's commencement exercises.
“[T]he program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment,” the court’s opinion stated. “[The program] accommodates the ‘genuine and independent choices’ of parents and students to pursue [religious] instruction.”
The court basically ruled the program and its classes constitutional since it was held off-site and because students were not required to take them and were purely elective and met the district's and the state's academic requirements. The fact that the classes were Christian-focused and evangelical in nature was moot, the court declared.
“This is a big win for public school students and for religious education,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the school district, along with Spartanburg firm Lyles, Darr & Clark, LLP. “The court’s opinion shows that public schools can make room for student religious exercise.”
For more than 50 years, courts have routinely held that off-campus released time programs do not violate the Constitution by promoting religion, but merely accommodate the wishes of students and parents, according to the Beckett Fund.
Nationwide, more than 250,000 children in 32 states participate in released time programs each year. In South Carolina alone, more than 12,000 students attend released time classes each week, according to the Beckett Fund.
"We are very pleased by the outcome," said school district superintendent Russell Booker. "We are especially pleased that the Court recognized that the District has conscientiously complied with the Constitution in carrying out its mission of educating Spartanburg’s children."
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