CAIRO - A US court ruling that upheld a South Carolina program that allows students to earn up for off-campus religious courses is sparking a heated debate about the church and the state in the United States.
The ruling will allow students "to continue their Bible education and be able to exercise their religious rights in order to do so," Janice Butler, executive director of Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County, told the USA Today on Tuesday, July 3.
The 4th Circuit US Court of Appeals upheld last week the Released Time law that allows students to earn up to two credits for off-campus religious courses offered by private educators.
The court said district schools have the right to award credit for religious courses as long as they meet secular standards.
"We see no evidence that the program has had the effect of establishing religion or that it has entangled the school district in religion," the Richmond, Va.-based judges wrote.
"As was the General Assembly and school district's purpose, the program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment."
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the parents of two high school students on the ground that the law endorses religion and entangles church and state.
Under the Released Time law, students are allowed to take two of seven credits for off-campus religious courses offered by private educators.
The state requires 24 units for graduation.
The program was authored to make the Bible courses more feasible for students.
More than 250,000 children in 32 US states take Released Time classes each year, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
But the verdict drew fire for violating the secular system in the United States.
"It's almost outrageous that someone could get academic credit for religious indoctrination during Released Time instruction," Anne Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Madison, Wis.-based group, told GreenvilleOnline.com.
"I don't think that most people in South Carolina would think that makes sense."
She said the 4th Circuit Court has a strong record on separation of church and state issues, including restricting prayer in government meetings.
"So there might be the votes on there to look at this because we feel that it's a very damaging decision."
Supporters believe that the court ruling will prompt many districts to offer off-campus religious courses to students.
We are very pleased by the outcome, says Dr. Russell W. Booker, superintendent of Spartanburg County School District 7.We are especially pleased that the court recognized that the district has conscientiously complied with the Constitution in carrying out its mission of educating Spartanburg's children.