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When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of the traditions of the United States. For it then respects the religious nature of the people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. Government may not finance religious groups nor undertake religious instruction nor blend secular and sectarian education nor use secular institutions to force one or some religion on any person. But there is no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence. The government must be neutral when it comes to competition between sects. It may not thrust any sect on any person. It may not make a religious observance compulsory. It may not coerce anyone to attend church, to observe a religious holiday, or to take religious instruction. But it can close its doors or suspend its operations as to those who want to repair to their religious sanctuary for worship or instruction.
Under § 3210 of the New York Education Law and the regulations thereunder, New York City ("City") permitted its public schools to release students during school hours, on written requests of their parents, so that they could leave the school buildings and grounds and go to religious centers for religious instruction or devotional exercises. The same statute made school attendance compulsory; students not released stayed in the classrooms; and the churches reported to the schools the names of children released from public schools who failed to report for religious instruction. Plaintiffs Tessim Zorach and other taxpayers and residents of the City and whose children attended its public schools, filed a lawsuit in New York state court against defendants Andrew G. Clauson, Jr. and other members of the Board of Education of the City, alleging that the "released time" program violated the provisions of the First Amendment which, as embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibited the states from establishing religion or prohibiting its free exercise. The trial court upheld the statute, and that decision was affirmed by the appellate division. On further appeal, the Court of Appeals of New York affirmed and upheld the statute. Moreover, the court refused to grant a trial on plaintiffs' contentions that the system was in fact administered in a coercive way, because the issue had not been properly raised in the manner required by state practice. Plaintiffs were granted a writ of certiorari.
Did the "released time" program violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?
The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the decision from the Court of Appeals of New York. The Court stressed that the program involved neither religious instruction in public school classrooms nor the expenditure of public funds. The Court held that the system did not prohibit the free exercise of religion because no one was forced to go to the religious classroom and no religious exercise or instruction was brought to the classrooms of the public schools. There was no evidence in the record that supported the conclusion that the system involved the use of coercion to get public school students into religious classrooms. In addition, the state had not made a law respecting an establishment of religion. The Court emphasized that the First Amendment did not require the government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence. Separation of church and state did not mean that public institutions could make no adjustments of their schedules to accommodate the religious needs of the people. The Court further ruled that plaintiff were precluded from raising the issue of maladministration before the Court because to that extent the decision below rested on an adequate state ground.