Religious instruction shouldn’t take place during Rock Hill school day

Religious instruction can play a useful role in the lives of young people. But we see no reason to schedule it during a regular school day.

The Rock Hill school board, at the request of Superintendent Kelly Pew, is considering a policy to allow students to leave school with an excused absence for religious instruction. Under the proposal, students would be permitted to leave for the religion classes during an elective class period one day a week.

Parents would have to agree to the arrangement, and a recognized religious organization would have to apply to the district for permission to take the students off campus for instruction. Students would be responsible for finding transportation to and from the classes.

Pew noted that once students leave campus, the district is not liable for their care or responsible for their behavior or discipline. She added that other districts in York County have similar policies and have experienced few problems with them.

We think school board member Mildred Douglas raised the key question during the discussion of the policy last week. She wondered why the instruction couldn’t occur outside of school hours.

“I can’t understand why they can’t do it after school or on Saturday,” she said.

We wonder the same thing. With so little time during a given school day for students to focus on scholarly or artistic pursuits, devoting one period a week to off-campus religious instruction seems unnecessary.

As Douglas noted, the instruction could occur on weeknights or Saturday or before school starts. Students also can attend religion classes during summer vacation.

This arrangement also is difficult logistically. With the time it takes the pick up and transport students to religion classes and then bring them back to school, how much time is left for instruction?

We understand that the instruction would occur during elective class periods. Pew specified that students would not be allowed to skip core classes such as English, social studies, math and science.

But that class time could be used for other studies, such as art, chorus, orchestra, drama or other academic electives. Again, time in the school day is so limited, we can’t see the need to devote a period to outside activities.

As proposed, this policy probably would not run afoul of church vs. state issues. The religious instruction would occur off campus during an open period.

Nonetheless, the district might have trouble when designating which religious groups are eligible to remove students from schools. Could Wiccans leave the campus for religious instruction? Could atheists argue that they, too, have a right to leave campus for instruction of some kind?

Board member Jim Vining asked Pew to provide a more detailed definition of what would constitute “a formally recognized religious organization or group.” We wonder how broad that definition will be.

Again, we think religious instruction can be a valuable addition to any child’s life. And families have a legitimate right to provide that instruction – on their own time.

But public education for all is one of the essential tenets that make this nation strong. We don’t need to chip away at classroom time with pursuits that are unrelated to the basic curriculum, and which should occur during non-school hours.