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Skipping school with your Bible: Religion released time classes growing in popularity

Published: Sunday, Aug. 14 2011 12:24 a.m. MDT

"Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the (school) — its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained and its glorious principles of morality inculcated?" asked the Justice rhetorically. "What is there to prevent a work, not sectarian, upon the general evidences of Christianity, from being read and taught in the college by lay teachers?"

Of course, having the Bible in schools throughout the 19th century did not happen without controversy.

Use of the King James Version of the Bible caused the largest conflicts during the mid-19th century — some of which resulted in violence, murder and Catholic church burnings. "What prompted this violent conflict?" asks Bruce Dorsey of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in an article titled "Freedom of Religion: Bibles, Public Schools and Philadelphia's Bloody Riots of 1844." "In short, it was provoked by a bitter controversy over Bible reading in the public schools."

Despite bitter battles, it wasn't until 1869 that Catholics won their first major legal battle in having Bible readings eliminated from public schools. "The Cincinnati Board of Education (in August of 1869) had just exiled the Bible from schools because it put Catholic children at a disadvantage," according to Deborah Rieselman's article"The Cincinnati Bible War" published in UC Magazine. "After all, the Roman Catholic and Protestant versions of the Bible differ not only in text, but in the number of books included. It's not clear what precipitated the decision, but Catholic leaders such as Archbishop John Purcell had long complained that public school boards should help finance the Catholic schools to give children an alternative. The request wasn't as outrageous as it sounds today."

Catholics and other groups continued to push for an end to Bibles in public schools throughout the 19th century — but as they made headway, they also made some bitter Protestant enemies. Indeed, Rev. Richard Harcourt's anti-Catholic lectures were filled beyond capacity, according to William J. Reese's book, and the Reverend Harcourt's, "Conspiracy: The American Public Schools," (published in 1890) accused the Vatican of conceiving various plots to destroy the public education in the United States. But, it still wasn't for another two decades that America began released time programs in earnest.

Consequently, in 1912 the LDS Granite High School released time seminary opened in Utah. Also, in 1914 the first Christian Bible released time program was established in Gary, Ind. Both of these programs were among the first off-campus religious released time programs in America.

These programs continued to grow until "released time peaked in 1947 with 2 million students enrolled in 2,200 communities," according to School Ministries.

Five years after its apex, the Supreme Court decided in Zorach v. Caluson that released time programs could continue to meet off campus during school hours. Today, with participants in released time programs all across the country of various religious affiliations, states and districts have specific rules for regulating these programs in accordance with the federal law.

The law

New York's statute, for example, only allows students to be released for an hour or less a week during school hours; whereas, Wisconsin law states that students who participate in released time must have at least 60 minutes but no more than 180 minutes per session of religious instruction.

South Carolina allows high schoolers to count released time instruction as elective credit.

Utah has one of the longest state codes regarding released time. It includes 11 different standards. For example, public schools cannot keep records of attendance at released time classes, and public school publications cannot include pictures, reports or records regarding released time classes.

Of course, with the growth of released time comes added scrutiny. Over the years, various legal battles have arisen about whether religious released time violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

In the late 90s, Nancy Moore with the Humanists of Utah, wrote a piece challenging the released time program in Utah's public schools.

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