FFRF Action Fund cheers death of chaplain bill and condemns ‘released time’ passage

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The FFRF Action Fund laments the passage of legislation that forces public schools to prioritize religious instruction but cheers the defeat of a proposal to bring chaplains into schools.

Indiana public school principals have till now been allowed to use discretion over whether to grant parents requests for their child to be allowed to attend off-campus religious instruction during the school day, and how much time is acceptable for that particular student to miss school for this “released time” request. Unfortunately, with the passage of HB 1137 late last week, the primary safeguard of the principal’s discretion has been completely removed, and such requests are now required to be granted for all students in “academically good standing” who are not “habitually truant.”

Revealing this bill’s intent to promote religion, at one point it was amended to further indoctrinate children by allowing religious chaplains on school grounds. Thankfully, the chaplain amendment, which FFRF Action Fund strenuously opposed — submitting testimony and asking its almost 800 advocates in Indiana to oppose — died. This was a big win, given the feverish activity in several states to try to pass copycat legislation of Texas’ very bad chaplain-in-school law.

With the released time law, students who leave campus for religious instruction are missing out on a significant amount of time — up to two hours every week — that could be used for actual academics. Instead of students spending valuable time in the classroom, they will be indoctrinated into a particular religious viewpoint. While parents are free to direct the religious upbringing of their students, it is improper for a public school to devote school resources toward that goal.

But this law will also harm students not enrolled in these programs. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has received several complaints from families in different school districts alleging that students not availing of released time were given busy work, or no work at all, as a consequence of staying at school during released time. At least one complaint stated that a school assigned nonattending students additional homework, seemingly as punishment for refusing to participate in a released time program.

Worse yet are the social implications from these programs for nonattending students. In communities where a significant portion or majority of students may participate in released time instruction, students who do not join will inevitably be singled out in the eyes of their peers. Released time programs encourage students to try to persuade nonattending schoolmates to join the program, which can lead to bullying.

Public schools and their communities are increasingly diverse, serving students who belong to minority religions and no religion at all. Released programs needlessly alienate students and families who practice a minority religion, as well as those students who are part of the 49 percent of Generation Z that is religiously unaffiliated.

“The bill was designed specifically to attack public education’s secular nature,” says FFRF Action Fund President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Religious instruction eating into education hurts every public school student, not just those being taken out of the classroom.”

FFRF Action Fund is the lobbying arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit with 40,000 members across the country, including more than 500 members in Indiana. The Action Fund’s purposes are to help pass legislation to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.