'Released Time' religious education: High school's Muslim prayer room raises constitutional questions

When I worked for The Associated Press in Dallas from 2003 to 2005, my family lived in the fast-growing bedroom community of Frisco, Texas.

I remember writing about the "kindergarten boom" that the suburb was experiencing at that time:

FRISCO, Texas — Cindi Wright jokes that the shopping mall in this one-time farming community — now one of the nation's fastest-growing cities — resembles a stroller convention.
"It has more strollers per capita than any other mall," said Wright, a mother of three young children.
Babies don't stay little for long, though, as educators in this city 25 miles north of Dallas have figured out.
The Frisco school district graduated fewer than 400 high school seniors in May, but it expects a crush of about 1,600 kindergartners when the new school year starts Monday.
Low interest rates and plenty of available housing have fueled an influx of young families, producing a kindergarten boom unmatched in Texas, demographers say.
"I don't know what it is," said Wright, 33. "It just seems like everybody's our age and everybody's having kids."

A dozen-plus years later, some of those kids are students at a Frisco high school that — in recent days — has drawn the attention of top Texas politicians and made national headlines:

The Dallas Morning News reported on the controversy earlier this month (for those not familiar with Texas education lingo, "ISD" stands for "Independent School District"):

Frisco ISD responded tersely on Friday to the Texas attorney general's concerns about the legality of a prayer room at Frisco's Liberty High School that is often — but not solely — used by Muslim students.
Frisco ISD learned of the AG's concerns on Friday from the media about the same time a news release was sent from the AG's office along with a copy of a letter addressed to district Superintendent Jeremy Lyon. 
The letter from Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie states that "it appears that students are being treated differently based on their religious beliefs," which would violate the First Amendment.
Lyon's letter in response, posted online late Friday on the district's website, suggests the concern "appears to be a publicity stunt by the OAG to politicize a non-issue."
The prayer room is open to any students and does get used by students of other faiths, according to the district's spokesman.
"Frisco ISD is greatly concerned that this type of inflammatory rhetoric in the current climate may place the District, its students, staff, parents and community in danger of unnecessary disruption," Lyon wrote in his letter.

On Sunday night, NPR's "All Things Considered" highlighted the matter:

From that report by Stella Chavez of NPR member station KERA of Dallas:

CHAVEZ: It's not clear how many public schools in Texas have prayer rooms or designated areas where students can pray, but they are legally allowed in schools across the country. Joy Baskin is with the Texas Association of School Boards.

JOY BASKIN: It's a concept that courts have looked at for many years. It's called release time. And it's the idea that in order to follow a tenant of faith the student is briefly excused.
CHAVEZ: She says students can leave class or campus for religious purposes. Schools can also allow head coverings or meet students' dietary restrictions. Kelly Shackelford is CEO of First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that focuses on religious freedom. He says students can gather to pray in school as long as the same accommodations are made for students of other faiths, and the school must remain neutral.
KELLY SHACKELFORD: The law is that we don't want the government, you know, which is running the schools, to push religion or try to force anybody into a particular religion but to provide the students who have perfect freedom under the First Amendment to live out their faith.

Two reactions to that brief segment of NPR's coverage:

1. I have interviewed Shackelford from time to time over the years, including in 2004 when he represented four families who filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Plano, Texas, school district — which borders Frisco — of banning Christmas and religious expression from their children's classrooms. The First Liberty Institute often takes the cases of conservative Christians claiming violations of their religious rights.

2. This is the first news report on the Frisco controversy that I've seen mention the "release time" — or "Released Time" — accommodation. I am familiar with that concept, having reported a few years ago on a Released Time Christian education program in South Carolina that teaches the Bible during the school day.

It strikes me that delving into the history of Released Time education and case law might be appropriate for reporters covering the Frisco story.

Here is a big chunk of the background that I included in my 2013 story:

Decades ago, religious instruction occurred on public school grounds themselves, said Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Program in Washington, D.C.
“Kids would go to a class taught by a religious leader, depending on their choice,” Haynes told The Christian Chronicle. “It might be a priest, minister or rabbi. That was not uncommon in American public schools for a period of time.”
But in 1948 — in the case McCollum v. Board of Education — the Supreme Court ruled that religious groups and school officials had cooperated unconstitutionally to provide religious instruction.
“Here not only are the State’s tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines,” Justice Hugo Black wrote. “The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps provide pupils for their religion classes through use of the state’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.”
Four years later, however, the 1952 case Zorach v. Clauson set the legal precedent that still governs Released Time.
In that case, the high court ruled specifically on the constitutionality of off-campus, Released Time programs, emphasizing the difference between schools supporting religious indoctrination and merely accommodating children’s religious needs.
“We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote in the landmark decision. “When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it then follows the best of our traditions, for it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public services to their spiritual needs.”
The decision allows schools to permit Released Time, but it does not require them to do so, legal experts said.

Given that a few years have passed since I researched that subject, I don't recall the specifics of how Released Time relates to what is happening in Frisco. In a discussion among our team, tmatt added:

Interesting. Could Eastern Orthodox students pray with icons in that room at the same time as Muslims? Can Young Life meet in there for prayer and Bible study?
I know that this is legal. I just want to know more about the laws that govern this operation. I imagine that there are some. RIGHT NOW, who else is using the room?

I responded:

My understanding of "Released Time" law is that the school would need to provide comparable facilities for students of varying faiths, not necessarily the same room.

But again, I am no expert. My understanding could be wrong.

However, my point and that of my colleague is this: There is an interesting and relevant story here that journalists could — and in my opinion, should — pursue related to the constitutional precedent and questions at play in the Frisco case. 

Image via KERA

Please respect our Commenting Policy