The First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a national religion. Therefore, in general, public schools are not allowed to include religious education in their curriculum. However, over the years, some schools established periods where students could be "released" to attend religious programs. Find out how the Supreme Court interpreted these released time policies below.
What the First Amendment Says About Religion
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Can Public School Students Miss Class for Religious Programs?
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
The introduction of religious education into the public schools, one of Justice Rutledge’s great drives,1 has also occasioned a substantial amount of litigation in the Court. In its first two encounters, the Court voided one program and upheld another, in which the similarities were at least as significant as the differences.
Both cases involved released time programs, the establishing of a period during which pupils in public schools were to be allowed, upon parental request, to receive religious instruction. In the first, the religious classes were conducted during regular school hours in the school building by outside teachers furnished by a religious council representing the various faiths, subject to the approval or supervision of the superintendent of schools.
Attendance reports were kept and reported to the school authorities in the same way as for other classes, and pupils not attending the religious instruction classes were required to continue their regular studies.
The operation of the State’s compulsory education system thus assists and is integrated with the program of religious instruction carried on by separate religious sects. Pupils compelled by law to go to school for secular education are released in part from their legal duty upon the condition that they attend the religious classes.
This is beyond all question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith. And it falls squarely under the ban of the First Amendment2 The case was also noteworthy because of the Court’s express rejection of the contention that historically the First Amendment was intended to forbid only government preference of one religion over another, not an impartial governmental assistance of all religions.3
Four years later, the Court upheld a different released-time program.4 In this one, schools released pupils during school hours, on written request of their parents, so that they might leave the school building and go to religious centers for religious instruction or devotional exercises. The churches reported to the schools the names of children released from the public schools who did not report for religious instruction; children not released remained in the classrooms for regular studies.
The Court found the differences between this program and the program struck down in McCollum to be constitutionally significant. Unlike McCollum, where the classrooms were used for religious instruction and force of the public school was used to promote that instruction, religious instruction was conducted off school premises and the public schools do no more than accommodate their schedules.5
“We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” Justice Douglas wrote for the Court.
“When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service 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.”
More on the Religion Clauses
1. Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 63 (Justice Rutledge dissenting) (quoted under Establishment of Religion, supra).
2. Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 209–10 (1948).
3. 333 U.S. at 211.
4. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952). Justices Black, Frankfurter, and Jackson dissented. Id. at 315, 320, 323.
5. 343 U.S. at 315. See also Abington School Dist. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 261–63 (1963) (Justice Brennan concurring) (suggesting that the important distinction was that the McCollum program placed the religious instruction in the public school classroom in precisely the position of authority held by the regular teachers of secular subjects, while the Zorach program did not).