Release Time v. Early Morning Seminary

Below is a forward I recently received about a perceived effort to eliminate the release time seminary system in an Idaho school district. The email is from a CES employee to parents of students in the school district encouraging them to oppose one of several proposed schedules currently under consideration that apparently would restructure the district’s trimester system and eliminate the class flexibility that enables the release time seminary program. It’s unclear whether preventing the Church from offering seminary during school hours was the intent of the proposed schedule at issue, but it nonetheless raises some interesting questions about the release time seminary program. What advantages does release time have over early morning seminary? Is seminary attendance or participation markedly better? Do students tend to absorb more from this system? Is it easier to maintain and oversee? Would large wards have trouble supporting their many high school-age students? And as areas which have historically had a large enough LDS population to justify a release time seminary program grow and the percentage of members in the overall community drops, is there a point at which early morning seminary simply becomes the more sensible option? What’s really at stake here? I’m curious how others see this issue because, to be quite honest, I’m kind of ambivalent about it. Part of me wouldn’t mind seeing release time seminary fall by the wayside.

Speaking personally, I attended three and a half years of release time seminary and half a year of early morning, and there was a marked difference. Now I had some great release time seminary teachers who were certainly better-trained than the ward member who was called to teach my early morning class, but I probably absorbed more from that semester of getting up at 5:45am than I did in all of my other seminary classes combined. If I were to pin-point a reason, I’d say it was probably because I was more invested in it. My attendance was more consistent as there was less of a temptation to skip (I did benefit from a mom who ensured I got there in the morning though). I participated a lot more (for me it was harder to blow off a ward member than some seminary teacher). It also just felt more spiritual. I’ve thought a lot about why that is and think it could be for a number of reasons. First, it was first thing in the morning before my mind drifted on to the million other distractions that make up high school. Second, it was at our chapel, which just felt more like Church than the seminary building a stone’s throw from school. Third, the class was smaller and more intimate. I knew the teacher and kids who attended well and worshiped with them week in and week out. I think the end result was an environment where I felt more spiritually stimulated. Had you asked me at the time, I would have said I preferred release time seminary, but this was because it demanded so much less from me. I didn’t have to wake up in the morning. I didn’t know those I attended with as well and could disappear into the crowd more easily. By the time I usually had seminary, I was so wrapped up in what was going on at school that day that it was a challenge to jump into the scriptures (and then head right back to school). Ultimately, instead of an hour or so of spiritual study, I think I ended up seeing it more as a gimmie period that was just a break from school.

Which brings me back to the letter. It seems to see the prospect of losing the fight in this Idaho school district as a slippery slope that could lead to the elimination of release time everywhere. Given my experience at seminary, I guess I have a hard time not saying “so what?” Am I alone here?

Dear Parents,

As many of you know the State of Idaho Board of Education has increased some of the requirements needed for graduation effective 2009-2010 school year for the class of 2013. As a result of this decision District 91 feels it necessary to modify the school schedule for the students in order to allow them more class time to master the subjects and be prepared to move on to higher education. A committee was formed called the ‘steering committee’ to study various schedules and make a proposal to the District Board of Education in January 2009 for their vote. Five different versions were proposed but emphasis has been placed, by the committee, on one which would eliminate Released Time Seminary beginning this upcoming school year FOR ALL GRADES 9-12! The other entails retaining trimesters at the high school and modifying the schedule at the Jr. High Schools in order to better align those schedules.

Aside from informing you of these changes the purpose of this e-mail is to invite you to do a few things:

1) Will you please go to the district website and study the issues at hand regarding “high school re-vision” including reading the meeting notes? [Note: The proposed school schedules at issue can be found here]

2) If you see the need to preserve Released Time Seminary as it currently exists as part of the daily school schedule, will you please plan to attend, with your 9-12 grade student(s), at least one of the High School Graduation Requirements Public Meetings listed on that home page, preferably at the meeting held at [Name of School]? (see further instructions below)

3) If you see the need to preserve Released Time Seminary as it currently exists as part of the daily school schedule will you please e-mail EACH of our District 91 board members respectfully stating your desires and any accompanying concerns? On the SUBJECT line please type: “I support Schedule C” in case they are unable to read and respond to the entire message?

Instructions for those who plan to attend:

1) Please be respectful during the entirety of the meeting by being punctual and not leaving early. While there please refrain from any outbursts of ANY kind ie. Applause, shouting or murmuring approval or dissent.

2) While there is no need to wear Sunday best please dress in nice casual clothes.

3) There will likely be members of the media present. Please feel free to answer their questions but make it very clear to them that you are in no way a spokesperson for the Church.

The e-mail addresses of the Board Members for District 91 are:

1. [email protected]
2. [email protected]
3. [email protected]
4. [email protected]
5. [email protected]

Remember to type “I support Schedule C” in the subject line!

Finally, we have been informed that those opposing a schedule which will allow released time seminary are rallying forces to attend the meetings as well. If released time seminary ever done away with it will be EXTREMELY difficult, if not impossible, to ever get back. Elder Kim Clark, our Area Authority and the Stake Presidents in our area are concerned that passing such a change could stimulate mass changes in other areas which could eliminate or alter released time as we know it.

The meetings are as follows: (Your support at [ Name of School ] is encouraged, at any others would be welcome also)

December 1, at Clair E. Gale Jr. High at 7p
December 2, at Eagle Rock Jr. High at 7p
December 4, at Taylorview Jr. High at 7p

Thank you for your support for your students. If you have any questions feel free to contact me via any of the following means: [ Contact Information ].

Seminaries & Institutes
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

P.S. As an aside, I would personally like you to know that my involvement in rallying support is by direction of our local Priesthood leaders and is in no way self-serving. Though my assignment could be modified or changed my employment is not at risk in any way regardless of the outcome. I do know the value and influence of the Released Time program and I personally feel a need to put forth every effort to maintain it; but in encouraging you I am acting out of obedience to the voice of our Area Authority, Elder Clark as well as our local Stake and Ward leaders.

57 comments for “Release Time v. Early Morning Seminary

  1. Wow. District 91 is the sister district of where I taught last year. A ton of LDS kids there. In fact, I’d say the majority of my students were LDS.
    Those wishing to keep release time will certainly have the majority of the parental support. If it’s done away with, I think there will be significant community backlash.

  2. How about late-night seminary? Yes the early morning hours can feel spiritual, but to teenagers and young adults it’s clear that their clock inclines them to get to bed late and get up late. I see a lot of them get to bed late and get up early, which is horrible for them, and you see the results in the hallways of BYU or other colleges: lots of sleeping in the halls, or in class (not mine of course). Imagine, midnight madness seminary, with school starting at 9, as it should… Now to find an old codger who can stay awake that late…

  3. I don’t think the PURPOSE of the proposed curriculum change is to eliminate released time, but it certainly could be the consequence. I don’t find it particularly surprising that there would be increased support in Idaho for a school curriculum that would not include a released time accommodation.

    Released time for religious education will disappear from Idaho before it vanishes from Utah, for a few reasons. Idaho is much more religiously diverse than Utah, and Idaho legislation and policy is not driven by Mormons (Idaho is only about a quarter Mormon). Southeast Idaho has always been Idaho’s Mormon stronghold but it’s more and more out of sync with the rest of Idaho – and even Southeast Idaho is becoming more religiously pluralistic. The more non-Mormon parts of Idaho, thought not generally hostile to Mormons, certainly are increasingly less likely to go out on a limb to support an accommodation for Mormons.

    Another factor that I think will lead to the demise of released time seminary (at least in Idaho, but it will place pressures on released time in Utah) is increased federal control over school policy choices. In this particular case, it looks like the school district is considering a curriculum change in response to a change in state policy, which in turn is in response to federal educational policy (is NCLB an impediment to religious accommodations? ;) )

    There’s also potentially some legal problems regarding the structure of the released time programs in Southeast Idaho that, eventually, could play a role in eliminating released time. Although the Supreme Court upheld a released time program against an Establishment Clause challenge in 1952 – but that decision is, at least in principle, increasingly questionable. BYU’s Fred Gedicks has wondered whether the same values that led the Court to accept the program in 1952 are still “in play” today. GW’s Ira Lupu has criticized released time programs in an important article called “The Trouble with Accommodation” and I think his personal anecdote about being a Jew in a school where Catholic children were released to go to seminary is a story that resonates with my experience with seminary in Idaho. All of the Mormons would trot off to the seminary across the street – and it was when you said goodbye to your non-Mormon friends that the religious cleavages were the most obvious. The seminary program really highlighted the Mormon/non-Mormon tensions at our school. Seminary students were often the “insiders” and non-Mormons the “outsiders.”

    Even one of the staunchest defendants of religious accommodations, the Hon. Judge Michael McConnell, supports them with trepidation, saying they are likly only constitutional if students are released for other secular purposes as well. That, I think, is one of the possible constitutional defects of the released time programs in Southeast Idaho. Although the schools *technically* allow students to be released for other secular purposes, the schools make it VERY, VERY difficult to get released for non-seminary purposes. I had non-Mormon friends who signed up to do seminary so they could get “released time” – and then, like many of the Mormon students (myself included), simply skipped out on seminary class. Released time was a freebie hour.

    Which brings me to the email Mr. Bohn has posted. I am worried that parents will force the school districts to adopt a particular curriculum only because it will preserve LDS seminary – not because it would preserve some neutral released time. I think it’s a public relations problem if it looks like the schools caved to “Mormon interests” and I also think that it makes the future Establishment Clause challenge to the released time program that much easier to win. There will be a record of evidence pointing to a religious rather than secular purpose for protecting released time (of course, any secular purpose, even if not the predominant purpose, could save the released time program – but it sure doesn’t look good if the primary purpose is religiously motivated).

    Of course, Utah’s released time programs will have longer lifespans – mostly because the state demographics will likely continue to favor Mormon interest for the short- to medium term. I don’t see Utah getting too much more diverse very soon (didn’t I read about a pro basketball player who refused to be traded to the Jazz, and when asked why, retorted, “YOU go live in Utah!” ???) so Mormons will continue to dominate school policies. However, the federalization of school policymaking will also affect Utah and place pressure on released time programs.

    I suspect that the most important stimulus that will lead to the demise of released time will come from within the Church itself. Released time is a unique Utah/Southeast Idaho phenomenon (and peppered throughout areas of other states like Arizona and Nevada). The Church pours a lot of money into these programs – but with more and more of the Church membership outside Utah and Idaho (and more importantly, outside the US!) it will become much harder to justify the expenditure. I wonder if a better education-related use of those funds would be to expand Church higher education programs, so that they can be available to members outside of the “BoM Beltway”; or to expand the Perpetual Education Fund?

    On the bright side, the pioneers had to walk halfway across the country. If released time disappears, it just means that Utah and Idaho kids will either have to wake up an hour early, or stay at school an hour late (just like their counterparts throughout the world). If I had to choose between walking across a continent and waking up early, I would *probably* choose waking up early!!!

  4. I attended 1-1/2 years released time in a small Mormon community in the west and 1-1/2 years released time in a suburban ward of a large midwestern city. (I graduated one year early from high school and did not attend a fourth year of seminary.) Hands down, released time was better.

    Everyone’s experiences are different depending on the teachers and the other students. But my released time classes were just as rigorous as another regular school class, with homework assignments, graded quizes, tests and finals. The released time seminary was more like a five day a week Sunday School class (even though there were a couple of tests, as I recall.)

    Personally, I think some of lack of a fond memory is a function of the terribly early hour. I was not particularly awake during those classes, and I often would drag around during the rest of the day. I did not personally feel a particular spiritual “boost” from the early morning seminary, at least not enough to offset the nonspiritual burden of the early hour.

  5. Doing away with release time seminary and consequently the professional Church positions that go along with them is inevitable in the long term, I think. The pecuniary burden to the Church is massive. Now, in Utah, I understand that the State government wants to keep release time because they don’t have the cash to pay for increasing teaching loads in the regular schools. So I doubt Utah will change any time soon.

    Besides the idea of a paid youth ministry, there are other considerations, as you note Marc. Not having ever attended release time, I can’t say one way or the other.

  6. Interesting SG. I can’t claim to have any idea of which school proposal here is the best, but one could envision a scenario where a stronger proposal is passed over because it reduces the class-time flexibility that release time seminary relies to function effectively… could be ripe grounds for suit.

  7. SG, I think the question you raise about establishment and the neutrality of release time is important. On the other hand, the Mormon Corridor release-time arrangement is a fantastic way to include a stronger component of moral and spiritual education for any denomination or religious group. I think we should be selling it all over the country. The enforced neutrality of public schools allows people to be educated together with a minimum of conflict over religious/spiritual/moral issues, but it also produces a morally anemic environment. We need all persuasions to be more involved in the moral training of our young people, and a release-time model is a great model. As it happens, I understand there are Muslims in California who get essentially release time from public schools for their own religious instruction. I’m all for it, and would like to see everyone have the same opportunity.

  8. Agreeing with Davidh (rarely) early morning is really hard on the kids physically. I have both taught and been a student and it is brutal.

    I am trying to imagine a Idaho Falls school board implementing a policy that will eliminate release time Seminary. Politically impossible. School board members will be voted out based on demographics.

  9. When my children were in grade school in our neighborhood in Brooklyn, they got a free hour or so in school every Wednesday afternoon while all the Catholic kids went to “religious instruction.” Doesn’t seem to have hurt them much.

    Unfortunately, my experience in seminary (three years of released time, back in the good old days when you could get a three-year diploma and be done with it) was that it is one of the great wasted opportunities in the church. (In this regard, it runs neck and neck with the Aaronic priesthood quorums.) My children all attended early morning seminary–that required more effort on their parts, as well as ours, and in some cases the effort was well rewarded.

    By the way, the Committee to Save Participial Forms requests that you follow the emailer’s lead and call it “released time.”

    And, is it politic to publish all those email addresses here?

  10. RTS is one of the things in the North American Church I find distasteful, for so many reasons.

    However, I would oppose it merely on the notion that if a kid has a free period at school, then there is a legitimate academic course s/he can be taking instead.

    Send them all to EMS, and let the CES employees find honest work. Or else hire professional CES employees in every stake to teach EMS. What’s good enough in North Texas, West Virginia, Ohio, California, etc. is good enough for the Zion Curtain.

  11. And, I disagree that EMS is an undue burden. I have met plenty of EMS graduates who held part-time jobs (including paper routes BEFORE EMS started in the morning), had their share of extracurricular activities, participated fully in YM/YW programs, and earned top grades. The only case I know of where EMS is a conflict are HS sports teams who hold early morning practices, but I think that’s been addressed in recent years by holding EMS now at two times (early, and very early).

    If you live in Utah, is EMS even an option instead of RTS? I mean, what if you wanted to take an extra academic course? What are your options?

  12. When I was growing up in Southeast Idaho, a group of us asked to have early morning seminary so we could have more space in our schedules for other classes. We were told no. Apparently, those in charge were concerned that it would take the more engaged students out of the released time classes leaving those who didn’t take it seriously. I also got the feeling that the decision was made at the local level, although there may have been a policy I’m not aware of.

  13. My friend’s son was told by the local seminary principal that his priorities were in the wrong order if he wanted to take early morning seminary or independent study rather than released time so that he could fit in a class he needed for graduation. Seminary principal said he should do the academic class at a community college after school, or independent study. Some kids were allowed to do EMS, but for some reason his situation was not considered dire enough. My friend was told that it was that way to preserve the jobs of released time seminary teachers. My own kids did EMS and I don’t think that either of them would call it much of a spiritual experience. Basically a lot of the other kids slept through class, and others talked.

  14. I like release-time seminary. The first year for me was *by far* the best (Book of Mormon), but I appreciated the other years as well. If it wasn’t for seminary, I may not have read the scriptures before my mission, maybe I wouldn’t even have gone on a mission and later gotten married in the temple. The system is not perfect but I am grateful for it. My oldest daughter is in RTS right now. I have seen improvements in her spirituality. Early morning seminary is worthwhile, but I doubt that eliminating all RTS would improve the overall spirituality of our youth. I’m almost certain that it would greatly reduce the number of students taking seminary.

    We have had trouble with our daughter’s school schedule (she is currently taking a math class from a local college). I’m grateful for the local school counselor’s help with our daughter’s schedule. We actually asked about an early morning seminary class for our daughter, but I’m told that stake leaders are worried about losing release-time. We found later that EMS would not work with marching band anyway, so we weren’t too disappointed– particularly when we found out how hard it was to get to early morning band practices!

    Taking seminary is a sacrifice however you do it. That was so when I was in high school, but it seems to have gotten more difficult with more class requirements over the years. I have faith though that sacrifice brings blessings.

  15. geez. Why would people think they have a right to RTS? If I were a high-school kid, I would NOT want it (I would rather use the school day to get academic/music classes, not another round of sunday school. ick.) Besides, in ‘the real world’ we don’t get RTS. It’s early morning, or if you’re really rural (as I was), home study. Homestudy sucked. Big time. My kids did/do early morning. My son rode his bike a mile and a half in the dark and snow this morning at 6:00 to get there.

    To those who would pitch a fit at the very good idea of ditching RTS, get over it.

  16. Sorry so long…

    I graduated from RTS in 1982. Back in the day, we actually got grades from seminary on our report cards. It affected our scholarship status and we had tests and assignments as others did. In spite of my parents best efforts at holding family scripture study every day–it was actually in seminary that I realized how cool scriptures were. My 9th grade BOM teacher–Brother Blackwell, if I remember correctly–was just amazing. How did he make something so boring to a 14 yo so great?

    Not all my teachers were fabulous, but every one of them was at least on the top of the good scale. (I grew up in Orem.)

    When we lived in Florida I would say our EMS teachers were poor to fairly good. I don’t remember one who was both well-versed in scripture AND had great rapport with the teens. Some did work very hard and were very dedicated though. Some did nothing.

    For example, I taught gospel doctrine to the 16-18 year olds for a couple of years. During one lesson we were talking about how the teens could take initiative in their spiritual lives. Here is a conversation we had:

    Me: What about in seminary? Could you read the assignment and go prepared every day?

    Them: What assignment?

    Me: You know, the reading you’re going to be discussing in class.

    Them: What do you mean?

    Me: Well, you know how you study a book of scripture every year? You could read the chapters from that book that you are going to be talking about so you have something to contribute?

    Them: Huh?

    Me: OK, what book are you reading this year?

    Them: ::::blank stare::::

    Me: Which book of scripture are your studying this year?

    Them: We don’t really study scriptures. We do word puzzles and stuff.


    You know the church PR stuff “Families, it’s about time.” and “Adoption, it’s about love.”? We made a film short in mutual one week that was called, “Seminary, it’s about sleep.”

    Lastly, I have to say that since we moved back to Utah in 2001, our experience with RTS has been just this side of awesome. (My third child is in her second year of seminary, my oldest two have graduated. They rotate each semester, so we’ve had 19 teachers so far–one or two duplications, I think.) We haven’t had a single poor teacher. My kids have loved the class, have come home full of thoughts and ideas about the gospel, and they all read scriptures on their own.

    Of course you can have a great experience with EMS and a poor one with RTS. Personally, I have felt very blessed by all those who have taught my kids in both venues. There has just been something really special about the men and women who do this full time. They have such an ability to gain rapport with the kids and to influence them for good. It has been a great thing for us and I hope all my kids get to experience it.

  17. I suppose the quality varies everywhere. We have excellent EMS teachers here, but although I enjoyed my EMS pretty well, my teachers were nearly all loopy. One’s in jail now. Every FPR that was ever thought up was told in my classes. I’m glad our local youth have better teachers. As far as RTS goes, I don’t care if it goes away.

  18. I attended EMS all through high school and found it a very positive experience. Our teachers were dedicated and organized very well, and stuck to the course outline, unlike other scary stories you hear about EMS being totally unstructured. It was a formative experience for my testimony, and helped me to learn a great deal about the scriptures.

    My experience with release time teachers has been rather negative, though. The lessons I’ve had from them seem more entertaining than spiritual, and they seem to focus on silly outward stuff rather than the meat of the gospel. Like, there was a guy who did a whole lesson on why you shouldn’t see “The Passion of the Christ,” which had just come out, and I just thought the whole time we could have been learning about something that really mattered rather than being lectured at.

    Also, I took the intro class in college that seminary teachers are supposed to take and was really turned off because I felt a lot of the people in that class were more interested in looking spiritual than actually being spiritual. Not so much from what happened inside the class but outside the class.

    Anyway, I realize that I’ve had bad experiences that have turned me off. I’m sure there’s a lot of good professional seminary teachers out there, I just haven’t had the opportunity to meet many of them.

    I think the most important thing is the commitment and testimony of the teacher. There are many EMS teachers who are called who are extremely committed and work very hard, and there are some who totally flake it out. I’m sure the same goes for RTS. I think it doesn’t matter either way as long as the teacher is committed.

  19. I attended EMS in Utah County in Grades 10-12, taught by one of the regular seminary teachers in the seminary building, in order to take multiple music classes and still be on the academic honors track. I thought EMS was an option everywhere RTS was available; it never crossed my mind that it wouldn’t be.

    My kids are in EMS in Ohio, since the only other option is home study – and none of us wants that. They are honors students and highly involved in extra-curricular activities.

    To each her own.

  20. In an odd inverse situation, the seminary at my Salt Lake-area high school circa 2003 pushed to phase out its early-morning option. Something about students needing to take advantage of the release time they were so lucky to have available. I was told more than once that because I spent several semesters in early-morning seminary to free up time for AP and music classes, I somehow wasn’t making seminary a high enough priority. Apparently the 6 AM start time didn’t represent an acceptable sacrifice…?

  21. Are you aware that with the trimester system, the students only spend 2 of their trimesters in Seminary? Early morning students have the benefit of attending Seminary the entire school year. My children all say they learned more from early morning than from RT.

    I will say, however, that whether RT or EM, it is the teacher that makes all the difference.

  22. Having taught early a.m. seminary (as a sub) and attended release time myself, I’m frankly not sure which is better. The early a.m. kids were only half awake, but the release time kids had their own problems, mostly viewing seminary as a rest period. I frankly don’t know what I would recommend, but I would offer this: seminary needs to be much more rigorous, much more serious. It’s entirely too easy to graduate from seminary with only a superficial knowledge of anything.

  23. I went to released time seminary as a youth. Our older children attended early morning seminary and our younger children (due to a move) did mostly home study seminary. The CES leadership in our area sniffs at home study seminary but it is actually what the Church wants all the adults to do — study the gospel regularly at home.

  24. I do not support release time!!!!

    Two reasons:
    First, in a 180-day school year, 720 hours of education are lost over the course of a child’s secondary education (not counting homework done for those in-class hours).

    Second, I do not feel that release time guarantees or even helps a seminary system to be more valuable.

    I did 4 years of early morning seminary in Utah. My private school wouldn’t give release time because they weren’t willing to give up an hour that was otherwise used to prepare the students for college and the world. I wholeheartedly supported this decision.

  25. I can’t believe that release time seminary even exists. Taking away valuable education time for religious instruction of ANY kind is ridiculous. If parents want their kids to go to seminary then do it early in the AM like they do everywhere else I’ve lived as a Mormon (the midwest and New England).

  26. As a seminary student in a small community in Northern Utah, I had a rather interesting experience.

    Our seminary teacher my freshman year was new to the program. The first day of class, he offered the closing prayer and actually stopped the prayer and asked the students to leave because of the lack of reverence. A few days later, he approached several of us and asked if we would be interested in attending an early morning class. I agreed and never regretted the decision, attending EMS all four years.

    The contrast was very noticable at our school. Many students in RTS were looking for a free period (or at least an easy one). It showed in their attitudes in class.

    I for one am grateful for a teacher who saw a problem and offered a solution for those of us that really wanted a good seminary experience.

  27. Ahh, the age old debate of RTS vs. EMS.

    My question is: Statistically, do students who complete RTS become stronger members? Do an increased percentage serve missions, marry in the temple, remain active 5 years after seminary graduation, etc.? Given the great expenses associated with continuing RTS (salaries, benefits, facilities, etc.), I’m sure the church must have some cost-benefit data to justify the program.

    On my mission, I served with missionaries who had attended RTS and those who attended EMS (a convert myself at the age of 18, I missed out). I couldn’t detect any discernable difference in the effectiveness of their teaching or their dedication as missionaries.

    Many say that EMS won’t work in Utah/Idaho because there are too many kids. I counter that by pointing out the proportionately greater number of members who are available to teach EMS, and the readily available church buildings in nearly every neighborhood in which to hold classes. There will likely need to be coordination at the stake level, or even inter-stake level (some stakes have fewer kids, others have more) but it seems like a viable option to this uninformed outsider.

  28. As far as the legal question of released time, to the extent anyone cares, the released time program would need to pass any one of 3 currently vacillating Supreme Court religion clause tests.

    The most-famous and well used of these tests is the Lemon test (the death of which has been greatly exaggerated): “First, the [policy] must have a secular . . . purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.” Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13 (1971). The Court has held that religious education, outside a public school, can have a secular purpose, such as imbuing good morals or behavior. E.g., School Dist. of Grand Rapids v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373, 383 (1985). As long as government involvement is neutral, which is normally met when a program is offered for religious and non-religious purposes, the second factor is met and the program neither advances nor inhibits religion. See, e.g., Mitchell, 530 U.S. at 829-30 (plurality); id. at 847 (O’Connor, J., concurring) (“neutral government programs” are those that “make aid available generally without regard to the religious or nonreligious character of the recipient school.”). Offering released time for both religious and non-religious reasons qualifies. But I do think this is a sticking point. The released time really has to be offered neutrally for every legitimate purpose. Finally, there cannot be excessive entanglement. The Court has recognized that some entanglement is likely and that is ok.

    However, as noted above, released time programs have been called into question. And one state court in New York, in a ruling that has not been overturned, struck down a released time program. Most concerns usually focus on the secular purpose prong, making the genuine offer to students to use release time for any legitimate purpose all the more important.

    To the point of the post, I think I’m with Marc on this one and tend to yawn over the loss of released time. As Jan Shipps has poignantly pointed out, our trials and distinctiveness are two factors that greatly contribute to our cohesiveness and growth. I think embracing our differences (instead of striving to look like mainstream Christianity) and embracing opportunities to sacrifice, without going too far, will end up strengthening us.

  29. I took RTS for grades 9-11, then I dropped out (to go to college). I did not find that the time I had spent in seminary hampered my academic progress. After all, I also had a band class each day, and physical “education” was also required. Frankly, my Seminary classes involved more practice in serious thinking than half of my other courses. You can still take math, science, history, English (literature and writing) and a foreign language and have time for an introduction to the most important literature of all. Frankly, the intensity of university education is so far beyond high school that the notion that you have to cram more academic training into high school is not reasonable. Most high school teachers are at the edge of their academic expertise. I satisfied my urge to learn more math by taking summer courses and participating in special programs, such as the “cadet engineering” program offered by the University of Utah between 11th and 12th grade, which including a computer programming class and then work as assistants to grad students, and then entering college a year early.

    Since Kim Clark is a pretty hefty academician, who is clearly concerned about the preparation of students for college, if he thinks that RTS is a good idea, then the argument that it somehow impairs academic achievement has to bear the burden of proof.

    The biblical illiteracy of many Americans cuts them off from the roots of western civilization and literature. If taught well, Seminary helps to make up for this omission and enables a student to be more academically well rounded than he would be without it.

    Let me be specific. As a freshman in the honors program at the University of Utah, part of our year-long study of The History of Ideas included excerpts from the Old and New Testaments, as well as writings by Christians like Augustine, Erasmus and Luther. My seminary education allowed me to have a dialogue with my professors rather than sit their simply taking notes. On more than one occasion, I or another student would point out something in the Bible that a professor was not familiar with.

    I taught seminary for four years in Omaha in a home-study program, which met on Saturday mornings. It was a good experience for me because it forced me to organize my knowledge so I could present it to students. It was then phased into a full early morning program. My kids attended both kinds of seminary. The biggest burden of EMS is on parents, who have to make arrangements for transportation. My ward in Idaho Falls (in school district 91) is in the middle of farm country some 5 miles north of the main highway, and members of the ward include families on farms some 40 miles west of town.

    If RTS is perceived by some students as an “easy” class, then they are being drawn into an environment that they especially need. Yes, it can be more fun if all are intellectually engaged, but that is true for Sunday School and priesthood and Young Women classes too. We don’t exclude people so the rest of us can have a more intellectually satisfying experience.

  30. re #3 “How about late-night seminary? ” – well, our ward might end up doing that next year! This year we had EMS using skype because of the physical impossibility of the 6 seminary students in our geographically large ward getting to the church by 6am (eg for us it is about a 1 hour drive away), then back again in time for school (which for high school students can start as early as 7:30am here). Next year all the seminary students will be at hs, and at least for my child that will mean catching the 6am train to school – so the teacher suggested we might be able to have nightime skype seminary instead.

  31. Had it not been for released time Seminary when I was in high school in the 60s (in Utah), I’m not sure I would have stuck with the Church. That’s where I learned to love the scriptures. My own children all happily went to early morning Seminary, but I was so happy when the last one got her driver’s license. I gladly gave her my car and I rode the bus to work, so I wouldn’t have to get up so early. Some of us just don’t function in the early morning hours. Believe me, I have tried, but I just can’t be rational before the sun comes up, though I’m quite functional in the late evening hours. My husband and I have argued over this adnauseum. He’s a BIG advocate of EMS, for all the reasons the rest of you have stated above, but I think there needs to be some accomodation made for students (and their parents) who just can’t physically handle getting up with the warblers.

  32. One more comment, in response to the observation that students walking over to released-time seminary emphasizes differences from non-Mormon students: The recognition that religious differences have consequences in behavior is part of growing up into the real world. When Mormon students do not freely engage in drinking and smoking, it is also a demarcation that emphasizes differences, but I don’t think that is a reason to abandon the Word of Wisdom. Becoming an adult in a diverse and pluralistic nation means recognizing that someone being different from you is not a put down of you by them and not an occasion for you to criticize them. The notion that avoiding emotional bruises on child A is justification for restricting the freedom of Children B through W is part of the emotionalism and incipient tyranny of the “enlightened”. Should kids be told that Boy Scouts is being cancelled because a nerd in their community is not interested in camping? The argument for having public schools is that they force students to know people who are not like themselves. If we start forcing everyone to be the same, so that no one will “feel left out”, we are encouraging intolerance rather than acceptance of diversity.

  33. I’ve been there and done that with all three modes as a student and a parent. I’m trying to stay neutral as I’m a little annoyed at the seminary principal who is a tenant in the stake center where I’m the stake tech specialist. (Minor turf war on his part.) There’s a down side to each version of seminary. Early morning can be brutal on kids and parents who have biological clocks that don’t get started before dawn. Released time might take away from other academic subjects. And, the screening of qualifications of instructors for Home Study may be less than stellar. So, how about a fourth option, online seminary. It doesn’t need buildings and could be done during the day or week when it best fits the workflow of the student.

  34. Jim #36, great comments. I completely agree that each model comes with its own benefits and challenges. But I would be opposed to online seminary (despite its many benefits) for one reason. There seems to be something in this Christian experiment that we are involved in in this life that turns on community. I think it has to do with charity and the second great commandment and ultimately about our understanding of the Atonement and how that affects our discipleship. The Atonement, properly understood, turns us upward and outward to serve all those around us. I think there is much to be gained by sticking a bunch of teenagers in a room together and making them learn about the gospel. Certainly it will be disruptive at times, or everyone will be asleep at others, but ultimately I think it is the most beneficial part.

  35. I feel skeptical that any area that currently has a large population of LDS kids going to RTS is going to eliminate it anytime soon. In both Utah and Idaho, funding for public schools is already stretched to the max, eliminating RTS in these areas would create a HUGE financial burden on the school districts involved, one that they could not meet without substantial tax increases. That’s a pretty big hurdle to get over, regardless of what public officials really think about RTS itself.

  36. Re. #32- “The biblical illiteracy of many Americans cuts them off from the roots of western civilization and literature. If taught well, Seminary helps to make up for this omission and enables a student to be more academically well rounded than he would be without it.”


    Serious question here (I’m a convert so I never took seminary and my kids aren’t old enough yet)…What good is seminary? From what I’ve heard it’s really nothing more than a bunch of scripture memorization. Perhaps Raymond Takashi Swenson can explain to Anthony P— L—- how this memorization will somehow reconnect students to “the roots of western civilization and literature”.

  37. Re #39: Seminary is supposed to be a four year study in LDS scripture, only one component of which was scripture memorization. Other components are supposed to include relatively in-depth studies of the context of the scripture, such as ancient and U.S. history, and even a smattering of political history, in order to set the scriptures in their context. The entire curriculum proceeds from premises that the scriptural records are correct enough to be useful to teens today.

    My own seminary experience (early morning from 1983-1988, with three excellent volunteer teachers and one merely good one) was largely positive, and included all those elements. Primarily, though, the purpose of seminary is to hold out a religious experience to high schoolers, because no such thing is offered in the public schools, and because there is a perception that they need it.

    It was good for me: I committed 160 passages of scripture to memory in four years, and I retain the wording of about 50 of them, enough to do searches on certain doctrinal points on the Church’s electronic copies of the scriptures.

    I’m completely ambivalent about whether RTS or EMS or independent study seminary is better, and I’m certain that there are CES employees who argue for RTS based on retaining their jobs. Ambivalence looms large, though, because the point is that they learn how to use the scriptures, and the means offered is subordinate to the ends.

  38. I don’t have any personal experience with release time – we did a hybrid home study/early morning program in our branch (we met one day a week at 5:45am in a member’s home, for an hour, and had to do all the “homework” in the book.) If I had gone to public high school like the other (two) kids I did Seminary with – especially like the boy whose football/wrestling practices meant that we had to be done at 6:45 every day – I’d have HATED it. As it was, I was homeschooled, so I would come back from seminary and go back to bed for another three hours. I’d have been all about late-night seminary.

    It does seem to me to create a split in culture, between the western US states and the rest of us, for some Mormons to have release time seminary and the rest of us not. But we already have lots of other divisions, such as whether someone’s ever even seen a General Authority, attended General Conference, heard about the resource center for RS/YW/Primary, is a member of Boy Scout troop supported by his ward, been to BYU Education Week…

    I don’t know whether that divide is good or bad in general. But it strikes me that release time seminary may make it easier to be a “who cares” kind of Mormon at an age where it’s fairly valuable for members to be highly engaged.

  39. Re: #12….I am a RTS teacher and I can’t believe you feel that my work isn’t “honest work”. Talk about casting stones. Anyway, statistics are very clear that the completion and enrollment rates for youth in EMS is lower than RTS. They both are very useful and both can serve a purpose. To call for the elimination of either would not do the best service to the youth of the Church for whom seminary is intended.

  40. Re #40- “…Primarily, though, the purpose of seminary is to hold out a religious experience to high schoolers, because no such thing is offered in the public schools…”

    Hold out a religious experience to high schoolers? Umm, what exactly are those high schoolers (the LDS ones, anyhow, whom I’m sure make up the bulk of seminary attendees) getting for three hours every Sunday?

  41. Tony, to answer your question in #39, I took RTS for three years and EMS for one in high school. I had excellent teachers three of those years, and I learned a tremendous amount about the scriptures in that time.

    Sarah, I’m a little slow sometimes, but what do you mean that RTS seminary makes it easier to be a “who cares” kind of Mormon? I think it makes it easier to attend seminary, but I don’t see why that would be a negative or be expected to have a negative effect on a student’s attitude.

  42. Some friends in Las Vegas clued us in to one of the biggest benefits of RTS: enough classrooms. RTS is apparently not allowed in Las Vegas, even though there are a lot of members living there, so everyone has EMS. Our friends say that it is tough to find enough church classrooms for that many students to take EMS at the same time. My daughter’s high school of 1000 students in Arizona has two classrooms worth of seminary students five periods per day.

    There are probably at least 3 LDS church buildings in the area covered by that high school, so we could probably do 10 EMS classes, but it seems much more efficient to have 2 full-time teachers in regular classrooms. My high school of 1200 students in Idaho had 4 RTS classrooms going for 5 or 6 periods of the day. Replacing that with 20 to 30 EMS classes would not have been pretty. My hometown was probably less than 1/3 LDS. The situation is undoubtedly hairier in Utah.

  43. #43: “Umm, what exactly are those high schoolers (the LDS ones, anyhow, whom I’m sure make up the bulk of seminary attendees) getting for three hours every Sunday?”

    The obvious answer is, “an insufficient experience.” For most of these kids the only time they put their faces in the actual scriptures, without the seminary program, would be the 30 minutes of time devoted to Sunday School, and that’s only if the Sunday School program is any good.

    I don’t really accept the answer given in comment #42. By far, most places in the Church have only extremely small self-study programs for seminary, and the majority of the remainder are early morning type programs. RTS can be very useful, sure, but I prefer a “service offering” model for envisioning Church programs, and I really like H.B. Lee’s “scaffolding” metaphor. Ultimately I think seminary bounces completely off the kids whose families don’t exemplify gospel living, with the obvious exception of those few very remarkable kids whose ambitions are already fully-formed.

    But like I said before, I’m ambivalent. If the *parents* want RTS and can convince the schools to permit it, then that’s the bellwether, not the cases made by CES employees.

  44. If I had it to do over I would have skipped my last three years of RTS. It was a complete waste of time, with teachers acting as clowns in order to entertain a group of students that were more than happy to participate in the ruse. Very little learning, it was less challenging by an order of magnitude than driver’s ed, which itself was much much easier than anything else in high school. If you’re going to occupy my time for several hours each week at least require me to learn something. Anything.

    I will not require my children to attend seminary.

  45. re: #39–Memorizing about 40 scriptures over the course of a year took only a small percentage of time, and was done outside of class, in preparation for “scripture chase” competitions that took place once a week. The bulk of seminary class time was spent in more detailed explication of the scriptures than was possible in Sunday School, especially given the lack of specialized training and preparation of many Sunday School teachers. My ward was heavy with fathers who worked for Kennecott Copper and the Postal Service, with very few college graduates, so the usual level of PH and SS teaching was pretty basic. Most Seminary courses were a definite step up.

    The scriptures need context in order to be understood. That is especially true for the Bible and its related branch, the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price. Even understanding the Doctrine and Covenants requires some familiarity with the history of the church and the language of America 170 years ago, something that is not taught in most public schools. A good Seminary teacher can take students beyond just identifying what appears to be the modern meaning of a few passages and understand the questions and problems that prompted specific revelations, as well as gain confidence in them through the statements of witnesses (such as to the receipt of D&C 76).

    My 10th grade seminary fielded a team that competed in a regional “Seminary Bowl”, much like the classic College Bowl TV show competition, in which broad understanding of the scriptures and church history were necessary. In 11th grade, I was in a special seminary class in which we each had research assignments. My project was ferreting out references to the School of the Prophets in Church History and compiling a report on what it involved. (This was back in the days before one could do digital searches) It was one of my earliest experiences in documentary research.

    I don’t know if my experiences were exceptional. I know that, in the little time available for me to be with my Home Study students, I tried to give them a more than superficial insight into the meaning of the scriptures. One of my fellow inistructors in that program was Colin Mangrum, who is still a professor at Creighton University Law School. I think it likely that his students had an exceptional experience. Those who have never attended Seminary themselves should take the time to visit a sampling of Seminary classes before they pronounce on the value of the experience.

  46. One more point: At the time I was first enrolled in Seminary, my father had been semi-active in the church. We had no regular home instruction on the gospel. The challenge to read the Book of Mormon and ask for a testimony of its truthfulness came in Seminary, and nowhere else. Certainly it is possible for a child to receive all necessary gospel instruction from his or her parents, or from the normal Sunday Meetings, but Seminary provides another opportunity to teach what all too many parents and Sunday School and Aaronic Priesthood advisors fail to teach. When the stakes are so high, I would not willingly forego a means that has successfully made a difference in the lives of so many, including myself.

  47. Re:# 48- “My ward was heavy with fathers who worked for Kennecott Copper and the Postal Service, with very few college graduates, so the usual level of PH and SS teaching was pretty basic. Most Seminary courses were a definite step up.”

    Wow, I’m a college graduate (cum laude!) and even I’m offended by the level of snobbery and elitism in that statement.

  48. Re #50
    I would agree that there are more polite ways to say what Raymond said in #48, but I can see where he is coming from. I am intellectually inclined myself, but not too many others in my home ward were. This is not meant as a slight to them, but it does mean that there are “different strokes for different folks”. Despite the best efforts of the Brethren to gerrymander diverse wards, I have lived in radically different wards. I liked seminary.

  49. I understand what Raymond is saying; I don’t see his statement as snobbery. I also came from a home where my father was not active at the time and there was virtually no gospel teaching. Seminary was much more in depth than sunday school. And really, how could sunday school ever compete in less than one hour each week?

    You poor pitiful souls wouldn’t know how to even survive out in the REAAAAAAAAAL world. Here in Missouri we have seminary clear across town at the stake center at 6 AM.
    Suck it up, get a backcone and GROOOOOOOOOOOOOOW UP !

  51. At least Sunday School is right there in the same building, in the middle of the three-hour block. And since 1995, high-school-age kids have had the four years of Gospel Doctrine roughly at the same time.

    EMS in retrospect wasn’t worth getting up early for.

    RTS would have been awkward because much of high school I was carrying a full load. And to me it’s not worth the expense or other boondoggles. (Don’t get me started about “Missionary Week”.)

  52. As a convert to the Church at age 17, my SS teacher asked why I knew more about the doctrine, Church, gospel, etc. than any of the other kids in SS. I had never taken Seminary.
    For years I had read every Church book I could get my hands on. If you look at the Seminary
    manual it is quitebasic and whether a class is “good” is dependent entirely on who teaches it(as is the case with anything being taught.)
    My daughter did home study seminary each year of H.S. Most teachers taught on her level.
    The last one was used to teaching the primary kids–and that’s the kind of lesson she gave her.
    It’s just my opinion but I learned the most from reading Church books written in depth on a particular topic and discuss them with others. Great way to learn! Also, kids need their sleep and some kids have health issues–not everyone fits into one mold so I think Seminary time needs to be flexible–especially at such a vulnerable age when we want to keep the kids liking Church.

  53. It is amazing to me that so many people responded to the topic of ELIMINATING release time. If anyone actually went to the district web-site and looked at the options, they would see that District 91 was going to allow 5 release time semesters, and would require students to find 3 semesters of alternative release time. This could be accomplished by taking required courses online, (allowing for the extra 3 semesters release time), completing home study, or trying to establish a small early morning program. I have looked into this issue – 27% of District 91 HIgh School Seniors last year were proficient in math, science, reading, and english. & nearly half of all graduating seniors had failed at least one class. The administration blames this on the flexibility of the Trimester system and would like to implement a semester system. People should have studied the option, and then if they chose option C I think that is great, but at least they knew what they were voting for and really talking about. I am afraid that many people just did what they were told to do and wrote “I support option C”. As it turns out option C is no longer even feasible for some reason, and it looks like the school district will go back to the status quo. Does anyone want to hire someone from my school district who has a non-proficiency rate of 70%? Let me know, its my kids will one day need a job?

  54. I realize this discussion is dead, but I want to add anyway:

    I graduated in 04 from dist. 91. RTS was my saving grace. I was able to take a break from the often-grueling schoolday (I was one of the 27% who was proficient in all subjects, taking AP classes, and very college-bound) and recharge on a spiritual level. I learned far more about the gospel from CES instructors (who actually knew something about it) than I did from the random men called to by my SS teachers on Sunday or the misguided and highly political teachings from my YW instructors. The instructors were also available for informal counseling/advice sessions during lunch, which was a huge benifit to many students, myself included.

    Dist 91 has been deliberately (imo) making it increasingly difficult for students to take RTS for several years now, and this proposition doesn’t surprise me in the least. What I think is fascinating about the whole situation is that changing from trimesters to semesters will *reduce* the number of classes that students are able to take, whether or not they are LDS or wish to take RTS. It will also eliminate a student’s ability to graduate early. This may make it easier for teachers to drill students with the basics and help them score better on No-Child-Left-Behind-mandated tests, but it will reduce the exposure to elective classes, including art, music, and advanced math and science. The college-bound students will find their transcripts looking weaker, and the other students will lose the proven benefits of elective classes. Why isn’t this the bigger issue?

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