The Trump administration moved Thursday to safeguard constitutionally protected prayer in schools, threatening districts the loss of government funds if they don’t follow the guidance.
“The right of students and teachers to freely exercise their faith will always be protected, including the right to pray,” Trump said in an Oval Office ceremony. “... We will not let anyone push God from the public square. We will uphold religious liberty for all.”
Christian leaders and religious liberty groups applauded the administration and said it could provide clarity to an issue that often sparks controversy. It is the first federal update on the issue since 2003.
The Department of Education guidance, according to a White House summary:
- Requires local educational agencies to “confirm that their policies do not prevent or interfere with the constitutionally-protected rights” outlined in the guidance -- and threatens the loss of federal funds if they don’t.
- Allows individuals to file a complaint “if they are denied the ability to participate in protected religious expression.”
- Makes clear that students “can read religious texts or pray during recess and other non-instructional periods, organize prayer groups, and express their religious beliefs in their assignments.”
The guidance “will help safeguard students’ rights by giving education providers and students the most current information concerning prayer in public schools,” the White House said.
Michael Berry, deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute, told Christian Headlines that the guidance will have a major effect on students who profess a faith.
“We represented a middle school student who was told by the principal that she wasn't allowed to pray. … And in another case, we represented a football coach who was fired for praying silently by himself for 15 to 30 seconds after a ballgame,” Berry told Christian Headlines. “What the Trump administration has done is to say that those types of activities are protected in this country under the Constitution and under federal laws. And the Department of Education is going to ensure that every public school district in the country complies with that.”
The Trump administration on Thursday also issued nine proposed new rules to ensure religious organizations “can compete on a level playing field” for funding “without discrimination,” according to a White House summary.
Together, the guidance and the new rules “continue the Trump administration's trend of showing his commitment to protecting religious freedom as America's first freedom,” Berry said.
“We commend President Trump for doing this,” Berry added.
The guidance and rules were announced the same day President Trump issued a proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, which is celebrated every Jan. 16 to commemorate the Virginia General Assembly's adoption of a landmark religious freedom law in 1786. It served as a model for the First Amendment.
“On this Religious Freedom Day, we reaffirm our commitment to protecting the precious and fundamental right of religious freedom, both at home and abroad,” the proclamation reads. “Our Founders entrusted the American people with a responsibility to protect religious liberty so that our Nation may stand as a bright beacon for the rest of the world. Today, we remain committed to that sacred endeavor and strive to support those around the world who still struggle under oppressive regimes that impose restrictions on freedom of religion.”
Betsy DeVos, secretary of the Department of Education, said the “Constitution doesn’t exist to protect us from religion.”
“It exists to protect religion from government,” she said. “The First Amendment affirms our free exercise of religion, and we don’t forfeit that first freedom to anyone or in any place, especially in public schools.”
Michael Foust is a freelance writer. Visit his blog, MichaelFoust.com.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Cecilie Arcurs
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, The Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.