Fueled by worries of secular moral decay, a network of Christian groups is increasingly using a little-known legal loophole to get God into public schools.

A new proposal in California that would allow high school students to receive academic credit for attending church classes during public school hours has attracted the interest of a Republican state senator.

Last month, a Republican state legislator in Alabama introduced a bill that also would count religious classes for high school credit, saying that “the free exercise of religion is important to the intellectual, moral, civic, and ethical development of students in Alabama.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools aren’t allowed to teach classes that endorse religion or try to convert students. But religious groups that are part of The Fellowship of Christian Released Time Ministries increasingly are using a legal technicality that they call “the best-kept secret” to slipping religion into the public school system.

Called released time, it allows students to miss public school classes to take religious classes taught and sponsored by volunteers. The rules of the program differ by state and district, but most states require parents’ permission. In California, elementary school students in more than a dozen districts are allowed to attend religious instruction for one hour a week.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that released time is constitutional, but a 1952 ruling put limits on the program: The religious classes can’t be taught on public school property, involve public school teachers or cost school districts any money.

Across America today, about a quarter-million public school students from kindergarten through high school are enrolled in religious education through released time programs, according to The Fellowship of Christian Released Time Ministries. Christian instruction is the most common, but there are Jewish programs in New York, Mormon programs in the West and several Muslim programs across the country. In California, there are at least 15 programs from Orange County to Shasta County.

In California’s Chino Valley Unified School District, 22 elementary schools participate in released time, making it one of the largest programs in the state. The program has a $40,000-a-year budget that is heavily funded by the evangelical megachurch Calvary Chapel Chino Hills.

More than 300 third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students leave school once a week to take classes inside retrofitted buses-turned-classrooms parked just off school premises. About 40 people volunteer to teach, most of them from Calvary Chapel Chino Hills.

“We teach basic Bible doctrine and the love of God,” said Gail Blake-Smith, founder and director of Chino Valley Released Time Christian Education Inc., the nonprofit group that started released time locally. “Kids today have so little hope and Bible knowledge, so we teach them that salvation comes through God alone.”

Blake-Smith has been a longtime advocate for released time. After she spoke about released time at a church service at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills last July, she said Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga – a member of the congregation – told her that he wanted to sponsor a bill in the 2016 session to get the program to count for high school credit.

A spokesman for Morrell said the senator has had conversations about a released time bill but has made no firm commitments to carry it next year.

“This is something that’s great for our kids,” Blake-Smith said. “We’re trying to introduce a religious worldview to students rather than the ideas they get from a toxic postmodern society.”

The proposal is in its infancy, but Christian organizers of the movement hope to get hundreds of California megachurches to support the bill.

Here’s how the California proposal is shaping up: District boards of education would vote on whether to allow the religious classes in their area. If approved, churches or religious groups would sponsor the classes, which would take place off school property, usually in churches or in retrofitted buses-turned-classrooms.

If transportation is needed to get to the church, the religious groups would have to organize it and assume liability for students.

The churches would keep attendance records to send back to the high school. Students in turn could receive up to two graduation credits for the elective program, which would be taught by a state-accredited teacher.

Only four states currently offer public school credit for outside religious classes. South Carolina became the first to offer academic credit for outside religious classes in 2006; in 2014, a bipartisan released time bill became law in Ohio; and high schools in Georgia and Utah offer religious classes for credit, even though the legislatures haven’t passed statewide bills to allow it.

Alabama Republican Rep. Kerry Rich is again trying to get released time to count for academic credit in the state. Past bills, which critics dubbed the “credit-for-creationism scheme,” died in the Legislature.

Released time has faced legal challenges, though courts have upheld its constitutionality.

In South Carolina in 2009, the Freedom From Religion Foundation – a nonprofit group that fights for the separation of church and state – unsuccessfully sued Spartanburg County School District 7. It argued that the district was endorsing religion by giving the organizers of released time the names of high school students to recruit for the class and letting the program be advertised at Parent Teacher Organization events.

“A public school could not constitutionally teach this course, but in South Carolina, a student can now get a public school academic credit for taking this class,” George Daly, a civil rights attorney who represented parents and students suing the school district, said in a news release about the case. “The school has delegated to a church what it cannot do itself. Students aren’t just released to study religion. … They get a public school grade for practicing religion.”

The U.S. District Court in Greenville, South Carolina, ruled that the district’s released time policy was legal, saying the school system was accommodating religion without establishing it. The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed that there were no constitutional problems.

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.