In a ruling that advocates called "a tremendous victory for religious education," a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the right of a school district to award high school credit for religious courses, as long as they meet secular standards.
The decision, which stemmed from a 2009 lawsuit filed against Spartanburg District 7, gives a constitutional stamp of approval to a 2006 South Carolina law that authorized school districts to accept credit from "Released Time" courses using the same criteria as for accepting credit transferred from private schools.
"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 Richmond, Va.-based judges wrote.
"As was the General Assembly and school district's purpose, the program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment."
The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which litigated the lawsuit on behalf of Robert Moss, Ellen Tillett and their daughter Melissa Moss, who attended Spartanburg High School at the time, plans to ask the full appellate court to review the case, Anne Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Madison, Wis.-based group, told GreenvilleOnline.com.
"It's almost outrageous that someone could get academic credit for religious indoctrination during Released Time instruction," she said. "I don't think that most people in South Carolina would think that makes sense."
The 4th Circuit Court has a strong record on separation of church and state issues, she said, including rulings restricting sectarian prayer in government meetings.
"So there might be the votes on there to look at this," Laurie Gaylor said, "because we feel that it's a very damaging decision."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1952 that Released Time programs don't violate the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion so long as they are taught off campus and aren't promoted or supported by public schools.
Janice Butler, executive director of Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County, said the ruling will allow students "to continue their Bible education and be able to exercise their religious rights in order to do so."
"We're praying that things will go well for all Released Time programs all over South Carolina," she said.
Her program "ministers to" 1,800 students in Greenville County Schools — but only 39 of them took the credit-bearing high school courses during the 2011-12 school year, she said.
The rest attended a one-day-a-week program for middle-school students that substitutes for a "related arts" class they would have taken at school otherwise, she said.
The high school Released Time program, which was offered but without credit prior to the 2006 state law, is taught by accredited teachers and covers the standards required by the state for credit toward a diploma, Butler said.
The law allows students to take two of their seven electives in Released Time. The state requires 24 units for graduation.
More than 250,000 children in 32 states, including 12,000 in South Carolina, take Released Time classes each year, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Spartanburg school district, along with a local law firm.
The idea behind allowing credit for Released Time was to make the Bible courses more feasible for students, lawmakers said at the time.
Two years ago, when budget cuts forced a reduction in course offerings in high schools, the Greenville County School Board increased the number of Released Time credits the district would accept from one to two.