COLUMBIA — A federal appeals court has upheld a South Carolina program that allows high school students to earn elective credit toward graduation through off-campus religious courses, a ruling supporters touted Monday as a victory for religious education.

Supporters said the decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will likely prompt more districts to offer the option to students. Oran Smith of the faith-based Palmetto Family Council said it may end some school officials’ fear of a court fight.

The lawsuit challenged a Spartanburg District 7 policy, adopted in 2007, allowing students to earn up to two credits for off-campus religious courses offered by private educators. The policy was in line with the state’s 2006 “released time credit act” that legislators hoped would be used statewide as a template.

The appeals court last Thursday upheld a lower court’s April 2011 decision. It said the district properly accommodated religion without establishing it, acting within the First Amendment.

South Carolina remains the only state with a law specifically allowing the off-campus religious credit.

“This is a very important victory for public school students having a choice,” said Lori Windham, an attorney for the district, who’s with the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The court’s opinion shows that public schools can make room for student religious exercise.”

The Freedom from Religion Foundation and the parents of two Spartanburg High students who did not take the course sued in 2009, arguing the policy endorses religion and entangles church and state. The Wisconsin-based group is considering whether to appeal.

Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said the foundation believes the U.S. Supreme Court did not envision allowing academic credit for what is essentially a Sunday school curriculum. The high court ruled in 1952 that “released time” programs — which allow students to leave campus for religious education, with parents’ permission — are constitutional.

“This is really pushing it,” Gaylor said. “What they’re teaching would not be permissible in public schools and yet they’re allowed to get academic credit.”

She contends there’s no comparable released-time course that atheists can take for “an easy A.”

Spartanburg 7 Superintendent Russell Booker said it’s not a district program, and participation has never been high. No high school student took the class in 2011-12, and three have signed up for the coming year, he said.

According to the ruling, just 20 high school students over three years participated, neither student plaintiff claimed to be harassed for not participating and their grades weren’t negatively affected.

“Private religious education is an integral part of the American school system,” the judges wrote. “It would be strange and unfair to penalize” students by “refusing to honor the grades they earned in their religious courses.”

About 7,500 public school students across South Carolina went off-campus last school year for Bible education classes offered by 21 private nonprofits, said Grayson Hartgrove, co-founder of BEST (Bible Education in School Time) Network, a national association of such providers. Hartgrove helped set up the program offered to Spartanburg 7 students through a private Christian school.

Since 1996, a combined 35,000 students have attended off-campus Bible classes. But only Spartanburg, Greenville and Myrtle Beach offer credits for high school classes, he said.

The ruling “opens the doors even wider for parents who want to choose this type of programming for their kids,” Hartgrove said.

Sen. Mike Fair, who co-sponsored the 2006 law, called it character education that’s completely voluntary.

Its main sponsor, Sen. Chip Campsen, said the ruling confirms that the law provides a constitutional model for released-time high school credits and should lead to more districts offering them. He said he introduced the measure because high school participation in the off-campus classes dried up after legislators increased the number of credit units needed to graduate from 20 to 24.

Offering up to two hours of elective credit allowed high school students to participate in off-campus religious courses without falling behind, he said.

The school-choice proponent said the off-campus programs allow parents who can’t afford private tuition the ability to incorporate religion in their child’s education.

“Having that moral and religious element to education is important to many, many people,” said Campsen, R-Isle of Palms. “It’s important to our American culture, as part of our history. It’s part of our cultural DNA.”