Supreme Court Denies Cert in Important Case


As Howard Friedman reports, the U.S. Supreme Court has denied cert — that is, decided not to hear an appeal — in Moss v. Spartanburg County School District, a very important, and wrongly decided, case out of South Carolina involving a released time program for religious instruction.

The district court and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals both upheld the constitutionality of a program in Spartanburg County schools that allows students to leave school for religion classes — Christian only, of course — and receive academic credit for them. The state of South Carolina has a law, the Released Time Credit Act, that explicitly allows this. It says:

A school district board of trustees may award high school students no more than two elective Carnegie units for the completion of released time classes in religious instruction as specified in Section 59-1-460 if:

(1) for the purpose of awarding elective Carnegie units, the released time classes in religious instruction are evaluated on the basis of purely secular criteria that are substantially the same criteria used to evaluate similar classes at established private high schools for the purpose of determining whether a student transferring to a public high school from a private high school will be awarded elective Carnegie units for such classes. However, any criteria that released time classes must be taken at an accredited private school is not applicable for the purpose of awarding Carnegie unit credits for released time classes; and

(2) the decision to award elective Carnegie units is neutral as to, and does not involve any test for, religious content or denominational affiliation.

This is very dangerous, and now that the courts have upheld it, I would expect many more states to follow suit. It allows school districts to do indirectly what they cannot do directly, like proselytize for Christianity, teach creationism and so forth. Our students don’t have enough time to adequately study the things they need to learn; we sure as hell shouldn’t be having them leave school to learn about their own religion. That’s what churches are for.

The 4th Circuit ruling now stands. It’s binding only in that circuit, technically, but it will still be used all over the country to justify the legality of such policies.

Comments

  1. Abby Normal says

    This is very dangerous, and now that the courts have upheld it, I would expect many more states to follow suit.

    Didn’t Zorach v. Clauson open that door in 1952? Or is the issue here class credit? I’m fairly ignorant about the currnet laws around, and legal history of, release time.

  2. Thorne says

    Doesn’t the true test come, as it did in Louisiana, when a Muslim (or Hindu, or Sikh) student attempts to get the same credits? As soon as they try to limit it to a particular flavor of religion, they are in violation of the constitution, isn’t it?

    What would REALLY be interesting, though, is if an Atheist student could do the same thing, taking outside courses in the stupidity of religious beliefs (non-denominational, of course.) Then I’m certain you would see the true colors of the legislators come through.

  3. baal says

    The right has stacked the judiciary; I expect them to being going nuts for the next 4 years at least. This goes for the POTUS too. I fear for the Voting Rights Act but it’ll not be the only ‘rules of the game’ change we’ll see.

  4. peterh says

    Religious instruction evaluated by secular criteria? That could/should be a real circus.

    Clause 2 would seem open to any religious training, not Xianity alone, but I’ll bet it doesn’t happen in SC.

  5. says

    There are several strong neo-Pagan communities in South Carolina, and the South has seen a growing number of Muslims. And fundies LOVE to screech about how Humanism is a religion. So….

    The best situation here would be to encourage the creation of Muslim, Pagan and Humanist curricula. If the law really is neutral, then no school district can allow only Christians leave school during school hours to receive Christian education. If this pisses off the fundies, well, too bad: their only alternative is to scrap the law entirely. Which I suspect would happen post-haste on announcement of plans to oppen a madrassa to teach public school students.

  6. eric says

    Torne @3:

    What would REALLY be interesting, though, is if an Atheist student could do the same thing…

    Gregory @6:

    And fundies LOVE to screech about how Humanism is a religion. So…

    There’s strong precedent that ‘no faith’ is just as protected under the first amendment as any faith. So yeah, IMO an atheist or humanist organization could create a release program for religious study. As (2) states, the school couldn’t consider an atheist teacher’s beliefs any more than it could consider a religious teacher’s.

    The issue would be practicality; schools typically require some guarantee of a number of interested students before starting any new elective. You’d have to find enough students who wanted to take it – in your highly religious test area where you suspect the administration would be bigoted against them. That might be tough to do.

  7. Randomfactor says

    So yeah, IMO an atheist or humanist organization could create a release program for religious study

    Advanced biology instruction specificially featuring evolution. Give the kids something valuable in the training.

  8. says

    And people say that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a slightly right-of-center or more right-of-center candidate who gets elected.

    Partisan, theocratic, patriarchal stupidity like that exhibited by the SCotUS in this instance is precisely why it matters who gets elected. I sincerely hope that several of the courts ReiKKKwing Qadi infarct, fatally, in the next year or two.

  9. slc1 says

    Hey folks, if they denied cert, that means that at least one of the so-called “liberal” justices voted with the majority.

  10. says

    @5

    Religious instruction evaluated by secular criteria? That could/should be a real circus.

    Yeah, and I’m guessing this wording has allowed it to survive legal challenges because it sounds neutral in theory*, but it won’t be in practice.

    * At least in theory to the outside observer. I’m confident the theory of those who crafted the law differs in that it was intended to not be followed in practice.

  11. Randomfactor says

    Hey folks, if they denied cert, that means that at least one of the so-called “liberal” justices voted with the majority.

    Not how it works. But they may simply be waiting for a better case. Or have decided to focus on DOMA instead.

  12. Eric Ressner says

    As many have already stated, it would be interesting to see the response to Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, humanist, and atheist release-time programs.

    But as Ed stated, and I agree, the issue is that high school students already don’t have enough time for the core curriculum of math, science, English, history, and foreign languages.

    The best outcome for secular-minded students is to just stay put and take real meaty classes while their god-bothering classmates sink even lower in the skills-and-knowledge sweepstakes.

    My only reservation is that those release-time classes are likely to be easy A’s, which could hurt the class rank of those who don’t take advantage.

  13. eric says

    The best outcome for secular-minded students is to just stay put and take real meaty classes while their god-bothering classmates sink even lower in the skills-and-knowledge sweepstakes.

    That may be true, but the best outcome for secular-minded taxpayers is to not have to pay for someone else’s sunday school.

  14. cottonnero says

    Get a mosque in Charleston or Columbia to sponsor a released time class for a local school and the SC legislature would change the law so fast it’d break the sound barrier.

  15. dogfightwithdogma says

    I think the unconstitutionality of this program so obvious, I can’t help but conclude that the justices, at least most of them, have little true commitment to the secular principle of church/state separation. Becoming increasingly difficult to have confidence in the court as defender of liberty when it shows such friendliness toward religion. This is a discouraging choice. Still we must continue to fight.

  16. says

    Abby Normal wrote:

    Didn’t Zorach v. Clauson open that door in 1952? Or is the issue here class credit? I’m fairly ignorant about the currnet laws around, and legal history of, release time.

    Zorach opened the way for released time programs, but the academic credit thing is fairly new — and far more insidious.

  17. Abby Normal says

    Thanks Ed. I’m just starting to dig into the history of the topic. My gut reaction is in line with your view and that of the other who have commented. But I’m having trouble building a logically consistent argument to support my gut. My main sticking point is with credit transfers. If a student attends a parochial school and later transfers to a public school, the credits are usually transferable and I’m alright with that. So the public schools already recognize those classes as worthy of credits. On what grounds can they then deny credits for those very same classes just because the student didn’t attend parochial school full time?

  18. John Hinkle says

    So the government has to write a law that allows the kiddies to get out of school for some dogma infusion. Sounds like some privileged members of the community are being pampered – getting special treatment even – by The Nanny “Big Government on Our Backs” State.

    Well, at least the school (district) involved in the suit has only about 20 students out of 1500 taking advantage of the Release program. That means the other kids can watch them leave and think (hopefully), thank god I’m not one of them.

  19. Ichthyic says

    this is quite different to how the case by that religious high school suing the University of California went.

    In that one, the state clearly came down on the side of the university to decide what curricula it would accept as legitimate study units.

    In the South Carolina case, it looks like the opposite verdict was reached?

  20. parasiteboy says

    The way the law is written, an online course would fit the criteria since;

    However, any criteria that released time classes must be taken at an accredited private school is not applicable for the purpose of awarding Carnegie unit credits for released time classes;

    All you would need is a certified teacher(s) anywhere in the state to administer the course according to this part of the law that Ed left out;

    B) For the purpose of subsection (A)(1), secular criteria may include, but are not limited to, the following:

    (1) number of hours of classroom instruction time;

    (2) review of the course syllabus which reflects the course requirements and materials used;

    (3) methods of assessment used in the course; and

    (4) whether the course was taught by a certified teacher.”

    Universities all over the country are hiring Vice Presidents of Distance and Online Programs, so having an online course at the high school level is just the next step.

    This approach would have several advantages:

    1) A class (or its framework) could be created once and distributed around the country.

    2) As mentioned above, one or several certified teachers in the state could administer the class regardless of where they live.

    3) All you need is computer access take the class, which means that students could take it at school, home or a public library.

    All of this would remove the need to have a critical mass of students who are interested, then find someone in each school district to build a course from the ground up and teach the class.

    Although I agree with Ed that there are more important things that students need to be learning in high school, the secularist/humanist/atheist communities and their organizations could pull together their resources and create a class.

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