High school students in Alabama could soon begin receiving credit for religious instruction taught by private educators off campus if a bill introduced to the House in March becomes law.

Sponsored by Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville, House Bill 255 would allow students in public high schools to participate in “released-time programs” in which students could receive elective credit for classes in religious instruction taken during the school day.  

School Ministries Inc. is an organization that works with local groups in different states to offer released-time programs across the United States. Executive Director Ken Breivik said these types of organizations help provide religious instruction in a public school setting.

“A lot of parents struggle with having kids in public schools because they want their kids to get moral instruction,” he said.

According to the School Ministries’ website, 42 states offer released-time programs. Though School Ministries focuses on Christian education, Breivik said many other religions offer such courses.

For local schools in Calhoun County, this could take classes that are currently offered a step further.  

“In our high school, we offer through our English and history department, ‘Bible as Literature,’ but we wouldn’t have a problem with students taking classes off campus,” said Ed Roe, deputy superintendent of Calhoun County Schools.

For the past seven years, the elective has given students the opportunity to explore how the Bible has been used throughout history and literature. Students in the course are given opportunities to look at multiple religions, including Islam and Judaism, to understand how the religions connect and influenced history.

Cerilla Roe, an English teacher at Pleasant Valley High School, teaches the elective and takes students on field trips to explore Anniston’s historic churches, as well as the local synagogue to grasp a “broader perspective.”

She said students of different faiths and some with none are often interested in the course, and offering released-time credit could provide opportunities for faith exploration by students.

“I see the students’ hunger for the knowledge, for wanting to go deeper into their study. I know I’ve had several over the years who came in not knowing what they believe and left with their own perspective,” Cerilla Roe said.

South Carolina’s example

Rich decided to sponsor the bill after seeing several other states create released-time programs. The bill resembles one passed in South Carolina in 2006, which gave students up to two hours of elective credit for religious instruction taken off campus and taught by private educators.

South Carolina’s law was met with mixed debate, and in 2007, challenged by a school district in Spartanburg. In 2011, the appeals court upheld the law, stating that the district had properly accommodated religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment.

Critics of the bill, however, said the law promoted unequal treatment.

AnnieLaurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the bill would be unnecessary and unfair.

“If you are not religious and you stay in class, you have to take an academic class, but your friend who is Southern Baptist gets basically a free ride with getting a grade for an extra activity that is not academic,” Gaylor said.

For many critics, the fact that the bill would allow for academic credit is most disturbing.

“If the schools were to oversee the content, that’s entanglement of church and state, and if the schools don’t, then their hands are being forced to accept academic credit for something that meets no kind of criteria,” Gaylor said.

A 1952 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that such programs are constitutional, provided that the courses take place off campus, are not paid for by schools and are not promoted by school officials. Students also must provide written consent from their parents, according to the court opinion.

Sen. George Campsen, R-Charleston, who co-sponsored the 2006 law in South Carolina, said giving high school students credit for released time programs was important for keeping participation up in schools.

“We experienced a fair amount of participation in released-time programs through middle school, and then virtually no participation in high school,” he said.

By providing credit in high school, students could find time in their schedules to take the class and also reach the number of course credits needed to graduate. 

Choosing instructors

Though the law was challenged in South Carolina, Campsen said it was upheld because of “the way it was structured,” employing standardized criteria for all programs to meet. In South Carolina, some accredited religious schools awarded the elective credit to students in released time programs.

That’s an option Robert Phillips, headmaster at Faith Christian School in Anniston, would be willing to consider.

Faith Christian currently offers opportunities for homeschooled children to take subjects on campus. Though Phillips would not want to have regulations placed on the institution which would compromise the school’s independent status, he did support the idea of students taking religious courses.

Though Faith Christian is accredited, the Bible instructor doesn’t have a teaching certificate, according to Phillips. This would present issues for instructors teaching time-released programs for high school students, the headmaster said.

“There is no teacher certification for the state of Alabama for Bible instructors. That would definitely be something the Legislature would have to justify,” Phillips said.

Robin Mears, executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association, pointed out these issues for local schools.

Because Alabama does not provide certification for pastors or Bible instructors, Mears questioned who would be allowed to teach the courses for high school students, who must receive instruction from certified teachers in public schools.

“A pastor doing it who doesn’t have certification, are you still going to count it as a credit or require him to get teacher certification?” Mears asked.

Mears also questioned how the state would regulate the courses. “There are about 140 local education agencies. All school boards will have to adopt a virtual school policy,” he said. “That’s 140 different policies, and that’s rather confusing.

The bill was introduced to the House on March 11 and could be voted on as early as Thursday.

For supporters of released-time programs, the benefits it could offer to students of all religions is what is most important.

“It’s a very important accommodation for religious expression. It’s part of our cultural DNA,” Campsen said.