Tens of thousands of public school students all across America are leaving their campus during the school day, attending a Released-Time Bible Education program (RTBE). RTBE is a time set aside during the school day when students that have received parental permission may leave campus for religious training.
RTBE is nothing new. It started in Gary, Indiana, in 1914 by School Superintendent William Wirt who believed in educating the whole child. Convinced that public schools were not giving enough moral and religious training, he invited local ministers to hold classes and would release all the children that wanted to attend.
The typical Released-Time (RT) program is geared to Grades K-6. Classes are one hour per week, held at a nearby church. When churches are not in close proximity to the school, RT classes meet in homes, mobile classrooms and leased buildings. Nationally, 65% of the students that attend RT are unchurched. Most of these go on to find a church home within one of the supporting churches. Currently, there are 250,000 students participating in 1000 RT programs around the country.
Released-Time and the Supreme Court
In 1948 the US Supreme Court challenged RT programs being held in school buildings. The court ruled against this type of program stating it was state sponsorship of religion.
Twenty states have adopted regulations concerning RT. None of these states forbids the program, although some limit its implementation.
In the 1970s, RT was adopted for high schools and middle schools. Originally, the classes were offered for academic credit. Although this is constitutional, only a few programs currently offer credit.
Each RT program is designed within its own community. Some programs might teach Bible memorization, Bible stories or have a study of Bible characters. Other programs include topics such as citizenship, civil responsibility, peer pressure, sexuality and substance abuse.
In 1952 the US Supreme Court again ruled on RT in Zorach vs. Clauson. In this case, the challenged RT program was held off campus. The Zorach case concluded that RT is permissible if:
a) It is voluntary
b) Students have parental permission
c) Classes are held off campus
d) Transportation is provided by program sponsor
e) Liability for the students is provided by the program sponsor
f) No Governmental funds are used
Those involved in RT today look to this decision as the legal bases for their work.
RT High School Credit Act
A number of dedicated groups and individuals including Palmetto Family, School Ministries Inc., and The South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention worked together to make South Carolina the first state to allow RT credit at the High School Level in recent years. In May 2006, the South Carolina Released Time Credit Act was passed. In 2014, Ohio passed the “Released Time for Religious Instruction Act” that not only codifies basic released time rules but allows up to two hours of elective academic credit. Other states have or are in the process of drafting similar bills.
RTBE Activities in South Carolina
South Carolina is home to School Ministries Inc. (SMI) which started in South Carolina and is now the largest Christian RTBE organization in the country. School Ministries’ mission is to “partner with communities across America to bring hope and purpose to the lives of public school students and their families through Christian Released Time Bible Education.” School Ministries assists local communities in the creation, support, and growth of RTBE programs. School Ministries holds a 501(c) 3 tax-exempt status and is currently emphasizing the opportunity for ministry to public school students through Released-Time Bible Education.
School Ministries has developed a start-up kit for those who would like to start RTBE programs. Teacher training, group insurance rates, assistance with background checks and 501(c)3 non-profit status are also services available to beginning programs. The S.C. Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church of SC, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church of America and Baptist Educational and Missionary denominations all endorse RTBE.
Several counties in SC have local groups that are implementing RTBE programs. Successful programs are thriving in Charleston, Greenville, York, Spartanburg, Horry, Clarendon, and other counties.
Please visit www.schoolministries.org to learn more on starting a local RTBE program.
Please visit www.releasedtime.org for general information on Released-Time.
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