“Released Time” for Public Schools

In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, there is a law allowing for “released time” for public school students to receive religious instruction outside of school during the school day. A group in Pennsylvania called Weekday Religious Education does just that. Once a week, during lunch and recess, they feed lunch to participating elementary students (off site) and also feed them truth from God’s word. One school, however, experienced a change in leadership and told Weekday Religious Education that they could not serve second graders from that school. The Independence Law Center worked behind the scenes with Weekday Religious Education to help give them the tools they needed to convince the principal to change her mind and allow Weekday Religious Education back.

On another front, The Harrisburg School District agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Child Evangelism Fellowship of Dauphin County Inc. (CEF) at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. CEF, which provides after-school “Good News Clubs”, filed the case after trying for months to work with the Harrisburg School District. This was not the first incident between the District and CEF.

In 2010, the District refused to permit CEF to use the school’s facilities because of CEF’s religious affiliation, a clear violation of the First Amendment. The District only abandoned its prohibition on religious groups, and allowed CEF to use the facilities, after attorney involvement in the spring of 2011. The District then changed its Policy. According to the new District policy “non-profit community service groups” like the Boys and Girls Club of Harrisburg are allowed to use the facilities free of charge. The District, however, refused to treat CEF like other non-profit groups that serve the children of the community. Instead, CEF faced thousands of dollars in fees, forcing CEF out of the District for much of the school year.

After filing suit on the new policy, the District finally agreed to treat CEF like other community service groups. It has now agreed to a full settlement of the case, including a change in policy that clarifies that groups like CEF are not to be treated differently than other groups.