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District Will Keep Releasing Students for Religion Classes

Times Staff Writer

After a seven-month study, Orange Unified School District has decided to keep its voluntary religious release-time program, with minor changes.

A 15-member committee appointed by the district school board studied the program after it was criticized in October. It recommended a temporary halt to the program at three schools and said fund-raising for the program on district campuses should be clearly represented as such.

Under California law, public school districts may release students during classes for off-campus religious instruction.

Orange Unified is one of five school districts in Orange County that offers religious release time. The others are Anaheim City Elementary, Yorba Linda Elementary, Magnolia Elementary and Fullerton Elementary.

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In Orange Unified, fourth- and fifth-grade students are permitted to leave class once a week and walk to a privately owned trailer parked near their school for religious instruction. Students whose parents don’t want them to take part remain in school.

About half of the 3,200 fourth- and fifth-graders in Orange Unified participated in the religious classes last year, district officials said.

Discrimination Alleged

Critics of the district’s program last fall urged the school board to drop its practice. They said the program discriminates against students who don’t take part and suggested that the religious classes be held before or after school.

The Orange Unified school board, however, never considered abandoning the program. The board appointed 15 people to the study group to determine whether Orange Unified’s program complied with state law.

“The committee looked into compliance (with the law), and it found that the religious-release trailers weren’t in compliance at three schools because they were parked on school property,” Asst. Supt. Harriett Bakenhus said.

She said the board voted earlier this month to discontinue religious release at those three schools--Imperial, Canyon Hills and Silverado--until safe places off campus can be found for the trailers.

Must Be Off Property

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State law requires that any religious classroom, such as the trailer used in Orange Unified, not be on school property, she said.

The study committee, after consultations with the school district lawyer, said it found nothing illegal about paper drives at various schools to raise money for the release time. The committee, however, noted that signs must clearly state that the paper drives are for the benefit of religious-release time.

Carole Johnson, director of operations of the Released Time Christian Education of Orange, praised the committee’s work and community support for the program. “Heavy community support for the released-time program has been in evidence throughout the seven-month study period,” she said.

Released Time Christian Education of Orange is a private, church-sponsored organization that owns the trailer used for religious training near schools. Nineteen churches in the Orange area sponsor the program. They contribute about $60,000 a year to provide teachers and other program necessities.

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‘Do It on Own Time’

Rochelle Maynard was the Orange parent who first challenged the religious release-time program last fall. She told a meeting of the school board that she had “no argument with the need for moral and Christian virtues in our youth. . . . I only ask that they do it on their own time and not flaunt religion where it is not appropriate.”

Maynard said Monday that she was disappointed at the study group’s report but said she wasn’t surprised.

Despite the district’s finding that the program complied with state law, Maynard noted that a spate of recent state and federal court rulings have consistently upheld separation of church and state.

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Just last week, she said, the state Supreme Court ruled that prayer at high school graduations is unconstitutional, “so I still think this state law (allowing release time) is unconstitutional. These programs are fine before or after school, but not during school.”

The 44-year-old state law that allows religious release time was upheld by a 1947 state Court of Appeal. It has never reached the state Supreme Court nor has it been challenged in a federal court.

Its supporters, however, note that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar state law in New York.


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