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Oklahoma Allows Parents to Excuse Children from School for Religious Education

June 10, 2024

In the Sooner State, parents will be allowed to excuse their children from public school classes for the sake of religious education, thanks to a new law. Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Kevin Stitt last week signed into law House Bill 1425, establishing guidelines to allow parents to excuse their children from up to three public school class periods per week in order to receive religious education or moral instruction off-campus.

The new law requires that a student’s parent or legal guardian “provides written consent prior to the student’s participation” in “a course in religious or moral instruction taught by an independent entity off school property.” It also stipulates that the independent entity keeps attendance records for school administrators and the local board of education, tracks the time a student spends in religious or moral instruction during the student’s school day, and ensures the scheduling of off-campus religious or moral instruction does not interfere with a student’s attendance of certain required or core classes, in addition to other requirements and provisions.

Oklahoma State Representative Clay Staires (R), one of the new law’s authors, explained that the legislation is establishing an operating procedure around a right that Oklahoma parents have had enumerated in law since 2014. “There have been some schools and some teachers that have attempted to implement it and they’ve done it wrong, and therefore they’ve been sued,” Staires explained. “Rules the Supreme Court put into place were things like you have to have parental permission to do it, it can’t take place on school grounds, [and] you can’t use any school resources, whether it be teachers or equipment or money.”

“Religious instruction release time is something we need to revisit. It’s federally protected and easy to accommodate,” Meg Kilgannon, Family Research Council’s senior fellow for Education Studies, explained in comments to The Washington Stand. She continued, “The students who receive this instruction perform better in all academic metrics —but even if there were no change, we know the value of teaching children about God. So many parents are unchurched these days and raise their children out of church. These religious release programs may bring whole families back to the church and into relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Kilgannon added, “Governor Stitt is signaling support for a wonderful program that will change lives for the better and influence Oklahomans for generations.”

The legislation passed the state Senate 38-7, with one Democrat voting alongside Republicans in favor of the bill; it passed by a narrower margin (51-40) in the state House, where 25 Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the legislation.

In a statement released Thursday, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) lawyer Greg Chafuen commended Oklahoma lawmakers for approving the legislation, which he said ensures that “parents are in the driver’s seat to direct the upbringing and education of their kids.” He stated, “Parents have the right and responsibility to guide the upbringing and education of their children. And many parents consider religious instruction an important part of their child’s education.”

Chafuen continued, “While public schools can teach about the Bible from a neutral, secular perspective, release-time programs offer religious courses taught by third-party charitable organizations off school grounds during school hours. These programs accommodate parents’ desire for their children to receive religious instruction that public schools cannot provide.”

Shortly before Stitt signed the legislation, the Satanic Temple (TST) pledged to take advantage of the new law. “The Satanic Temple believes that public schools should be free from religious influence. We are, however, prepared to ensure our members’ children receive the same opportunities as those participating in other religion’s programs,” the group reportedly said over social media.

In Florida, TST made a similar announcement, in response to a new law allowing religious chaplains in public schools. Governor Ron DeSantis (R) — a conservative Catholic — shot the group down, saying, “We’re not playing those games in Florida. That is not a religion. That is not qualifying to be able to participate in this.”

S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.