When I was in elementary school, we had Weekday Religious Education once a week. Yes, it was public school. And yes, of course they knew about the separation of church and state. That’s why it was held in a trailer, a few yards off school grounds.
I never went (I wish I had!). Instead I got to stay on the state side of the church/state divide, in an empty classroom, with a book.
Anyway, that was in Virginia in the 1970s. Today the situation is . . .exactly the same. I know that because a friend of mine recently fumed on Facebook about a similar class at her child’s school in Staunton, Virginia. So I was curious: was it possible that Plains Elementary still had that damned trailer?
I called the office, nervous. I didn’t want to sound like a condescending Northerner–or worse, like an atheist on the verge of writing a damning blog entry that tens of people will read.
(I am hopeless as a reporter: I hate to make people uncomfortable.)
The school secretary said, yes, students still go off-site for religious education, but they no longer call it Weekday Religious Education. They call it Released Time. Oh, I said. Released Time. OK, then. Thanks so much for your help.
(See what I mean?)
“Released Time” is short for Released Time Bible Education, a program in which children are “released” from the school day to have religious education. It started in New York in 1905. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1945 (McCollum v Board of Education), when Justice Hugo Black wrote that it was “beyond all questions a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith.”
But in 1952 (Zorach v Clauson) the Court went the other way, since school buildings were not used in that instance; it decided the schools were merely making “adjustments of their schedules to accommodate the religious needs of the people.”
To that sounds less like pausing for Christ during the school day and more like closing for Christmas.
Accommodation for religious holidays probably exists across all school districts in the country. My children’s 2015-16 school calendar includes days off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Good Friday. There’s a mysterious “Holiday Recess” that begins December 24. Easter is so early next year that spring break does not coincide; they have the day off for Good Friday, but that’s it. But we don’t really need a specified day off for Easter, do we? Easter’s always a Sunday, and we would never have school on Sundays because . . . our entire calendar accommodates the religious needs of the people.
But scheduling the required 180 school days around religious holidays (and federal ones, and Superintendent’s Conference Days, whatever they are) is a far cry from setting aside a particular time within the school day for children to go to church.
And it is church;* make no mistake. “Weekday Religious Education” sounds ecumenical and possibly even . . . educational. Every week a different religion! “Released Time” sounds bureaucratic—like what your boss might give you in exchange for working on New Year’s. But if you look at the actual materials, it’s clear they are teaching one specific thing:
“By approval of the School Board, pupils, at the written request of their parents, may be released to the teacher of Weekday Religious Education for the purpose of Bible study for one period a week during the school session” [my italics]. That’s from the school’s permission slip. The trailer church brochure itself states, “The Bible is our textbook . . . The Adventures in Christian Living Curriculum includes the following themes:
- Living in God’s World and Children in the Bible (Kindergarten)
- God’s Loving Care and Bible Heroes (Grade 1)
- God’s Helpers and Worship (Grade 2)
- How the Bible Came to Be and the Life of Jesus (Grade 3)
- The Teachings of Jesus and the Life of the Church (Grade 4)
“Teacher.” “Study.” “Textbook.” “Curriculum.”
Just like any other class, right? Third-graders in Staunton schools this year will learn how to add and subtract three-digit numbers, why the seasons change, how to draw conclusions from historical fiction, and (if their parents sign the permission slip, which more than 80% of them do), the Life of Jesus.
You can put the trailer off school grounds. You can make attendance optional. You can have “volunteer walkers” escort students to the trailer church. You can use not a squirt of taxpayer funds. But if you put Bible study in your school day and allow the Bible to be called a “textbook,” you are equating learning Christian doctrine with, well, learning.
My friend is not the only one in Staunton who would prefer the school day to be set aside for school subjects. Ten years ago, some parents brought up the issue of Released Time at a meeting of the Staunton School Board. (The Washington Post, in reporting the story, found it noteworthy that Staunton had 24,000 residents and 75 churches.) They felt their children were ostracized, or at least bored, on account of the program. By law, students who don’t go to trailer church can’t do anything particularly edifying with that time, lest the Christian kids fall behind.
The Board bravely tabled the matter, with just one member voting in favor of ending the program: Reverend Edward Scott, pastor of the Allen Chapel AME Church. As Revered Scott explained to the Post:
“It seemed to me the fairest thing was to leave every student in school all day long and provide them the best education we can deliver . . . We should leave religious education to parents and the institutions that are better suited to provide it—the churches.”
Radical. Well, Reverend Scott, maybe one day the children of Staunton shall be released from Released Time. Meanwhile, to be fair, the trailer church situation isn’t exactly the same as when I was a child. My parents had to get special permission to get me out of Bible study; now you have to have a parent’s signature to get in.
That’s progress, right?
* Except on Long Island and parts similar, where the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education conducts a Jewish Hour because “your child has a right to know what it means to be a Jew and what it means to have a relationship with G-d.”