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Federal appeals court upholds credit for off-campus religious courses

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] has upheld [opinion, PDF] a South Carolina program allowing public high school students to earn credit for religious courses taken off campus during the school day. The program was challenged by students and parents at a school that offers the credit. They argued that giving students credit for religious instruction violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment [text]. In his decision, Judge Paul Niemeyer said the court found no religious preference in the program: "We see no evidence that the program has had the effect of establishing religion or that it has entangled the School District in religion. As was the General Assembly and School District's purpose, the program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment." To date, only 20 students have participated in the program, which is only available in Spartanburg, Greenville and Myrtle Beach.

Government involvement in religious activity is a contentious issue in the US. The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] in May that a lawsuit opposing a Ten Commandments monument displayed on property owned by the City of Fargo, North Dakota, may move forward. In January the US Supreme Court declined to review [JURIST report] a case concerning whether a county board of commissioners in North Carolina violated the Establishment Clause by opening its public meetings with prayers. The court's denial of certiorari in the case preserved a ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit holding that that the board of commissioners violated the Establishment Clause by effectively using a public forum to endorse Christianity [JURIST report]. Earlier that month a federal judge ordered Florida's Dixie County Courthouse to remove the Ten Commandments monument [JURIST report] displayed on the front steps of the courthouse, concluding that the monument's religious message would be interpreted to be espoused by the government.

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