[On Tuesday], The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a letter to South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, asking him to fulfill campaign promises to defend South Carolina citizens’ religious liberties against hyper-secular special interest groups. The letter asks McMaster, who is currently running for governor, to help Spartanburg County School District No. 7 defend a state law that makes released time religious instruction classes available to high school students.
In 2009, Spartanburg County School District No. 7 was sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with the parents of two high school students, for implementing the South Carolina Released Time Credit Act. The law, passed in 2006, allows school districts to give elective credit to students who complete released time courses in religious instruction.
“Released time credit is a creative and legal way to increase parental choice,” says Eric Rassbach, Director of Litigation for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the school district. “South Carolina should not let the Freedom From Religion Foundation bully local school districts with the threat of lawsuits.”
For more than 50 years, courts have routinely held that off-campus released time programs do not violate the Constitution by promoting religion, but merely accommodate the wishes of students’ parents. Nationwide, more than 250,000 children in 32 states participate in released time programs each year. In South Carolina alone, more than 12,000 students attend released time classes each week.
In November 2009, McMaster released a press release lamenting that “liberals are using an increasingly sympathetic federal judiciary to re-write our Constitution to ban any and all religious expression in our schools, our government and the public square.” In a video hosted on his campaign website, Attorney General McMaster repeats a promise he has made to town councils and others around the state: “If the ACLU sues you, call me up. We’ll defend you. We’ll help you.”
The lawsuit has implications for released time programs across South Carolina and throughout the country. Shortly after filing the lawsuit, the president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained in an editorial that the 1952 Supreme Court decision that found released time constitutional “was a mistake.” Another plaintiff stated that he hopes to “set a precedent statewide, that no other school district would be able to offer credit for a religious course.”
Rassbach added, “We are confident that the Attorney General will do the right thing and join the fight on behalf of South Carolina parents and students.”