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Appeals Court OKs School Credit for Religious Released-Time Program

A federal appeals court has upheld a South Carolina school district's "released-time" program in which students go off campus for religious instruction but receive academic credit at their public schools.

The legal challenge to the program of the Spartanburg County district focused on the provision of academic credits, since the opponents conceded that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the basic idea of off-campus released-time programs in a 1952 case, Zorach v. Clauson.

The challengers argued that the provision of credit advances religion in violation of the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion. Released-time "students are not just getting an excused absence to pursue religious instruction," the challengers say in court papers. "Their religious life is being promoted and approved."

The challengers include a family of non-Christians who received a promotional flier through Spartanburg High School for the released-time program at Spartanburg Bible School. They contend the district's alleged "Christian favoritism" made them feel like outsiders.

South Carolina passed a law in 2006 authorizing academic credit for released-time instruction.

The school district said it worked to ensure that the Bible school, which is unaccredited, works to submit course credits through an accredited private religious school, and that religious school helps assure that the Bible school's program is rigorous. That way, public school officials do not have to make judgments about the Bible school's religious teaching. And the transfer of credits is no different than when a student moves from a private religious school into the public school system, the district said.

In its June 28 decision in Moss v. Spartanburg County School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled unanimously for the district.

"This model has enabled the school district to accommodate the desires of parents and students to participate in private religious education in Spartanburg County while avoiding the potential perils inherent in any governmental assessment of the 'quality' of religious instruction," the 4th Circuit panel said in its opinion.

The court also rejected claims that public school officials were excessively entangled with the religious program because they permitted the display of fliers about it in a counselor's office and the Bible school was allowed to participated in an annual student fair that included participants such as military and college recruiters.

"We see no evidence that the program has had the effect of establishing religion or that it has entangled the school district in religion," the court said.

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