Okla. gov. signature bill allowing students to leave school for religious instruction


A recently passed law will allow Oklahoma public school students to receive off-campus religious instruction during the school day if they choose.

Oklahoma Republican Governor Kevin Stitt signed on House Bill 1425 into law on Wednesday. The bill was approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature last month, with the Senate voting 38-7 and the House of Representatives voting 51-40.

The law authorizes the boards of education of school districts “to adopt a policy that excuses a student from school to attend a released time course for not more than three class periods per week or a maximum of one hundred and twenty-five class periods per year.”

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The legislation defines “exempted time course” as “time during which a student is excused from school to attend a course in religious or moral instruction taught by an independent entity off school property.”

The measure came with conditions stating that a student's parent or legal guardian must provide “written consent prior to the student's participation in the released time course” and prohibiting the use of school district funds or staff to provide the instruction.

Additionally, independent entities where students attend on “released time” must maintain attendance records and make them available to school districts and hold districts “harmless with respect to any liability arising from conduct that does not occur on school property under the control or supervision of the school.” district.” Parents are responsible for providing transportation for “released time” courses and students are responsible for any schoolwork they miss when they leave campus.

The bill gives school and district administrators “reasonable discretion over the scheduling and timing of freed time courses.” It also allows boards of education to provide students with credit for work completed as part of released time courses based on “the amount of classroom instructional time,” “the course requirements and any material used in the course,” “methods of evaluation used in the course “. the course” and “the course instructor's qualifications.”

While one Democrat joined all Republicans in supporting the initiative in the state Senate, the opposite kind of defection occurred in the House, where 25 Republicans helped Democrats fight it.

Greg Chafuen, legal counsel with the religious freedom legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, published statement in support of the bill on Thursday.

“Parents have the right and responsibility to guide the upbringing and education of their children,” he said. “And many parents consider religious instruction an important part of their child's education. While public schools may teach about the Bible from a neutral, secular perspective, after-school programs offer religious courses taught by third-party charitable organizations outside of school grounds during school hours.

Chafuen added that the new law “makes sure that every Oklahoman knows that the law respects their right to seek a religious education for their children through these time-tested programs.”

Oklahoma is not the first state to allow students to receive off-campus religious instruction during school hours. Ohio has a similar law, and the widespread embrace of students attending Bible classes by the LifeWise Academy ministry that resulted from it drew backlash from the atheist legal advocacy organization Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“If parents want their children to learn about the [B]possible, there are so many ways to do it without cutting into valuable school hours,” FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor asserted in a statement coinciding with the organization's distribution of a letter to school districts across the state. “Participating students are penalized by losing hundreds of hours of academic instruction to the freed up LifeWise time. [B]able study classes.”

The letter sent to the state's school districts explained that “FFRF has received several complaints from families in different school districts alleging that absent students have received busy work, or no work at all, as a result of staying behind during released time classes” during the organization “received at least one complaint reporting that a school assigned absent students additional homework apparently as punishment for refusing to participate in a released time program.”

The US Supreme Court ruled in the 1952 case Zorach v. Clauson that published programs did not violate the United States Constitution, finding “no constitutional requirement that makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence.”

“When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions,” the majority opinion stated.

“To say that maybe not, would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a cruel indifference to religious groups. That would be to prefer those who believe in no religion over those who do.”

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