South Carolina

Richland 2 won’t allow release time for religious classes during school day

A proposal to allow students to go off-campus during the school day for religious classes is going nowhere in Richland 2, though some other Midlands school districts allow students to do so.

The Richland 2 school board this week decided it was “uncomfortable moving forward” with a policy that could have allowed students to leave campus during study hall or elective class time to receive Christian-based instruction, possibly for high school class credit.

“It was difficult for some of us to really ensure that parents would understand the separation (of church and state),” school board chairman James Manning said.

South Carolina law says school districts may have policies allowing students to leave school to receive religious instruction with parents’ or guardians’ written consent. No public funding can be involved in those programs, and school personnel may not be involved in giving the instruction. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of religious release time from public schools.

The state also allows high school students to receive up to two class credits for release-time religious education.

At least three school districts in Richland and Lexington counties – Lexington 1, Lexington 2 and Lexington-Richland 5 – have policies allowing release time for religious education.

Religious release time is not currently offered in high schools in Lexington 1 and Lexington-Richland 5. That means no students receive class credit for their religious education, spokespeople for the districts said. A Lexington 2 spokesman said he is not aware of class credits being awarded for students in the release time program.

Parents want a moral upbringing.”

Grayson Hartgrove

Grayson Hartgrove, director of a Columbia-based organization called School Time Bible of South Carolina, introduced the area’s first religious release-time program in Lexington 2 nearly two decades ago, he said.

School Time Bible provides Christian education to about 600 students in 22 schools in the Midlands by partnering with local churches to teach elective Bible classes, Hartgrove said.

“The one thing we have found over and over again is parents want a moral upbringing,” he said. “Parents want their kids to understand the Bible even if they can’t or won’t get up on Sunday mornings and take them to church.

“Shouldn’t it be the parents’ decision on what their child does when they drop them off at the school door?” Hartgrove said. “Should parents lose their rights to control the upbringing of their child?”

An organization separate from Hartgrove’s, called School Ministries Inc., had approached Richland 2 about offering outside Bible-based education.

The Richland 2 board’s decision not to create a release-time policy took into account concerns about safety and liability while students are off campus, the possibility of inequity in students’ transportation to and from the off-campus classes and some concerns that had been raised by community members, Manning said.

You have to teach some ethics during public school ... lack of bullying, lack of discrimination. These can all be secular.”

Marlene Roth

Rabbi Jonathan Case of Beth Shalom synagogue in Columbia said that, while he understands and appreciates the sentiment of fostering a more religiously oriented community, “I also understood it was a trespass on the public school time.

“I fully endorse religious instruction, and I think it informs and enriches our community,” he said. But, he said, that instruction time should be held outside of school hours.

Case said he felt allowing students to leave school to attend a Christian-based program would be excluding to other students.

“I think on behalf of all the people who are not within that regimented slot of that outreach program, everyone else would be at a disadvantage,” Case said.

Divisiveness was one of the concerns Marlene Roth, a Beth Shalom member, had when she first heard of the possibility of religious release time in Richland 2. A 30-year teaching veteran who is now retired, Roth has a 4-year-old granddaughter who will begin attending school in Richland 2 in the fall, she said.

Though she believes religious education should not play a role in the public school day, Roth said she believes a moral education can and should be a part of a public school education.

“I think teachers do teach (ethics) and should teach them as part of forming a complete person,” Roth said. “You have to teach some ethics during public school ... lack of bullying, lack of discrimination. These can all be secular. ...

“It isn’t just the idea of any one religion that says, ‘You have to be a good person.’ 

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.