The idea of releasing public school students for devotional religious study off school premises in the United States was first discussed in 1905 at a conference in New York City. The proposal was that public elementary schools should be closed one day a week in addition to Sunday so those parents who so desired could have their children attend religious instruction outside of the school building.
However, it was not until Dr. William Wirt, an innovative educator and superintendent of the Gary, Indiana schools established a program in 1914 in which 619 students participated in off-campus religious education. Dr. Wirt believed that the church, home, playground, library, and school were all components in a child's education. The public school, however, had and still has no responsibility for teachers, curriculum, conduct, or achievement within the Released Time classes.
Released Time grew and flourished. In 1922, for example, Released Time programs were active in 23 states. 40,000 students from 200 school districts were participating. By 1932, thirty States had active Released Time Programs in 400 communities with enrollment of 250,000 students. Ten years later, in 1942 participation reached 1.5 million students in 46 States. Released Time peaked in 1947 with 2 million students enrolled in 2,200 communities. During this time, favorable Released Time legislation was adopted by 12 States.
Currently, it is estimated that there are over 1,000 Released Time Programs in operation today involving over 250,000 students in kindergarten through high school.