Bible study rolling back to Rapp
‘Students can be exposed to teaching that may build good morals and healthy values’
“We have a consensus to do absolutely nothing” that could be construed as either endorsing or hampering a proposed “Rolling Chapel” religious study program for Rappahannock public school students.
So concluded Rappahannock County School Board Chairman John Wesley Mills at Tuesday night’s regular meeting of the board, in effect granting a Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church proposal to allow participating elementary school students to be excused for one hour each month for off-campus bible study.
Moments before, Superintendent Dr.
Shannon Grimsley had presented the board with a constitutional history of so-called “release time” programs in America, defined as “time set aside during school hours allowing students to be released to receive private religious studies off school premises.”
She cited U.S. Supreme Court opinions from the 1940s through the 1970s, including two precedent setting “cornerstone cases” in 1948 and 1952.
In the former McCollum v. Board of Education, the court determined that a released time program where representatives came into public schools to give religious instruction was a violation of First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of official religion.
But in the latter Zorach v. Clauson, the nation’s highest court determined that a release program is constitutional where classes are conducted off school property and no public funds are used.
In addition, Grimsley drew attention to opinions from Virginia’s attorney general.
Specifically for Rappahannock County, the superintendent provided arguments both “for” and “against” adopting release time policies. Currently, no such policy is in place in the county’s public schools, albeit parents are freely allowed to remove children from class, whether for a doctor’s appointment or religious purposes..
Allowing a release time policy, Grimsley noted, “respects the religious rights” of parents and families, “provides a means by which students can be exposed to teaching that may build good morals and healthy values,” and “recognizes the importance of spiritual well-being.”
And, she warned: “There may be a risk of litigation if schools do not accommodate students to be released for religious reasons.”
On the other hand, the superintendent pointed out that off-campus instruction such as Rolling Chapel “alters” the regular school schedule, could create peer pressure for “nonparticipants,” might “open the door for other religious programs to release students,” and give the “appearance of promotion of a particular religion.”
And this similar warning: it could pose a “risk of litigation if schools accommodate a release program.”
All said and done, Grimsley advised the board against rocking the boat.
“Do not develop a release time policy,” she argued. “Understand that, even without a policy, programs like this may occur off school grounds without any involvement by the public school.”
The board, after some comments, agreed with the superintendent and took no action.
Observed school board member Rachel Bynum in part of her prepared statement: “I agree with Dr. Grimsley’s recommendation that we should not move forward to draft a policy accommodating Released Time for Religious Study, as was requested at our August meeting.
“It has been established that any parent or guardian of a student may have a student dismissed to themselves or another authorized person for any purpose; this makes a released time policy unnecessary. If the Rolling Chapel or any other religious organization chooses to set up on private property and is in no way connected with the schools, they already have the right to do so.
“I believe it would be unwise . . . primarily because we have a good thing going at our schools, and limited time during the school year to accomplish the educational goals we have set out.”
Mills previously told the Rappahannock News that Rolling Chapel “is not a school program and will not use any school buses or other service.”
He stressed that the school system “cannot infringe on parental rights to participate in such programs, regardless of religion. We already have students who do this of different religions. Parents sign them out for their religious studies. The school has no obligation or responsibility once a parent dismisses their child or releases them to a relative, program, or activity.”
It is proposed that Rolling Chapel participants be escorted by two chaperones to a fully equipped mobile classroom parked once each month on a church member’s property, which happens to be just across the road from the elementary school. Its teachings are described as mainly Old Testament stories geared to young children.
Public school systems in Culpeper, Madison, Page, Green and Orange counties all permit similar off-campus religious study as is now planned for Rappahannock County, where it was held in previous decades.
VIDEO ON RAPPNEWS.COM An unedited video of the School Board meeting can be found online at rappnews. com/video.