Sunday, November 30, 2008

Public Schools, Release Time, and Separation of Church and State

A recent case in Huntington, IN demonstrates the fine line that government and government agencies must tread in an attempting to deal even-handedly with religion. The case in question regards release time from public school for religious education. The issue of release time is an old one, going back many years in American jurisprudence. Release time has both won and lost its day in court, and has been on trial almost more times than one would want to recount.

What release time is all about is allowing children to leave the regular school program, usually for an hour or less a day or week, to receive religious education during school hours. Usually, the children go to a portable trailer or some structure not directly connected to the school. Parental permission must be obtained. A student or parent may decline a child's participation.

At issue in the Huntington case is the use of the school parking lot and electricity. Since these are provided via taxpayer's funds and since taxation is to be conducted for the common good and not sectarian promotion, many find the idea of release time inappropriate. Others find the notion a school even making religious instruction available during school time to be a tacit endorsement of a particular religion on the school's part.

Although conservative Christian parents may point out that attendance is voluntary and that their children have a "right" to a religious education, it begs the question: Why on school and time (and possibly property or expense)? It's like the old "prayer in school deal." Why should a time to pray be officially recognized by schools when students can pray in school virtually anytime they want? If religious organizations are so keen on offering religious education to kids, why not offer it when school is not in session? Are they afraid that, given the choice between free time and religion, parents and kids will opt for free time? Is it a case of trying to "make" kids be religious? If it is so important to parents, why do they not see to it that kids receive religious education outside of school?

Schools walk a fine line. They are government agencies, and as such they are not in the religion business. On the other hand, religion is a very real part of society and culture. As such, schools should teach plenty ABOUT religion, but nothing about HOW to be religious, whether in a school building or in a trailer in the parking lot.

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