Hundreds of public schools across the nation allow students, with permission from their parents, to take Christ-centered Bible instruction off campus during the school day. Such arrangements, known as released-time programs, have been around since 1914, when Gary, Indiana, school superintendent William Wirt originated the concept. It has been estimated that as many as 600,000 students in thirty-two states participate in these programs. The United States Supreme Court held, in Zorach v. Clauson(1952), that they are permissible under the Constitution so long as the teachers are not state-approved, public money is not involved, and there is no state coercion. This was the case, by the way, in which that darling of all liberal Supreme Court justices, William 0. Douglas, made his famous statement that, ironically, would be used by proponents of religious liberty for years to come:
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it then follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public services to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe But we find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence But it can close its doors or suspend its operations as those who want to repair to their religious sanctuary for worship or instruction. No more than that is undertaken here.
California statutes authorize released-time programs. Under the program in the Pomona Unified School District in Pomona, California, students are released from school one hour per week to attend classes on religious instruction off campus. Recently, anti-Christian sentiment has reared its head, apparently making some in the school district feel the need to subtly discourage the program. For ten years the Pomona district allowed teachers to distribute permission slips for the program to students. But in 2002, the district reversed itself, specifically forbidding teachers from making permission slips available and forbidding students from passing them out to other students.
"It is outrageous," observed attorney Brad Dacus, "for a school district to trounce upon the ability of elementary school children to invite their peers to attend something that is very dear to them. Such policies only further the anti-religious stigma often created by public schools." There is no constitutional excuse for the district's behavior. As Dacus notes, "The mere providing of permission slips for possible activities of outside organizations in no way connotes an endorsement of those organizations, but merely is an administrative necessity for allowing outside activities and outside organizations to make contact with parents."
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