Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Released time. I had thought the issue of whether "released time" policy under which a school district could allow students to leave school to participate in religious instruction violated the Establishment Clause had been resolved in 1952 when the Supreme Court decided Zorach v. Clauson. However, the plaintiffs in Pierce v. Sullivan West Central School District made an "as applied" challenge to the policy. They were no more successful that the plaintiff in Zorach. Although a New York regulation allowed school districts to allow students to leave for religious instruction, this regulation provided that "released time" could only be at the end of the morning or afternoon session for no more than an hour per week. The school district in Pierce, however, allowed the "released time" to take place in the middle of the morning session. During that period, the remaining students had no organized activities. They awaited the return of the students taking religious instruction.

The plaintiffs complained that the way the program was implement violated their Establishment Clause rights because it humiliated them, left non-participants in the program with nothing to do, conveyed a message of endoresement of religion, violated the regulation by allowing students to leave in the middle of the morning session and enabled the students receiving religious instruction to bring religious literature into the classrooms. The school district, while admitting that the policy did not comply with the regulation, argued that it did not violate the Establishment Clause. The District Court granted summary judgment to the school district.

The Second Circuit affirmed. It found that Zorach controlled the case. The Establishment Clause was not violated because no religious instruction took place in the school itself, no expenditure of public funds supported the program and the public school did not promote the instruction beyond collecting permission slips from the parents.

The decision can be found here.

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