The role of religion in public schools is a hotly debated topic and one that state and federal courts address regularly. At issue, of course, is the First Amendment's prohibition of government-sponsored religion. Per the United States Supreme Court, the First Amendment mandates that many religious activities remain absent from public schools.
Nevertheless, via a program known as "released time," public school students may receive religious instruction during the school day. Put simply, through released-time programs, religious institutions like churches may, with parental permission, provide instruction off campus to public school students for a set amount of time each week.
Background and Constitutionality
Although released-time programs have existed since the early 1900s, two mid-twentieth-century United States Supreme Court decisions—Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952), and McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948)—increased the concept's notoriety.
In Zorach v. Clauson, the Supreme Court examined a New York law that allowed public schools to release students to religious centers for one hour each week, provided the students' parents submitted a written request for such release. In upholding the law, the Court emphasized that the state's released-time program was constitutional because religious instruction was not incorporated into public school classrooms, public funds were not expended to support or promote the program, and outside of collecting permission slips, schools did not encourage participation in the program. By highlighting these characteristics, the Court distinguished the program from one in Illinois that it had invalidated in a prior case—McCollum v. Board of Education. There, religious teachers provided instruction in public school classrooms, and the Court deemed the practice unconstitutional because it "utilize[ed] … the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith." In sum, Zorach and McCollum establish that released-time programs are constitutional, provided they operate free of financial assistance and extensive operational support from the public school system.