On Thursday, January 16, President Trump held a meeting in the Oval Office, where he announced updated safeguards against religious discrimination, including protections for the constitutional “right to pray” in public schools.
“You have the right to pray,” said the president, “and that’s a very important and powerful right. There’s nothing more important than that I would say…Yet in public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith, or following their religious beliefs. It is totally unacceptable.”
Working to Curb Religious Discrimination
The president announced new federal guidance from the Department of Education that updates previous guidance dating back to 2003. Called “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools,” the updates are designed to counteract what the president called a “growing totalitarian impulse” on the far left that wants to restrict religious expression. In addition to the federal guidance, the president announced that nine federal agencies will be proposing rules to prevent religious discrimination. The White House also released a memo to make sure federal funds will not be used to violate the First Amendment.
President Trump declared January 16 to be Religious Freedom Day and was joined in the Oval Office by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, and spiritual adviser Paula White. Also present were teachers and students of various faith backgrounds who have experienced religious discrimination. At the president’s invitation, they shared what they had experienced as a result of their beliefs.
One young man from Colorado had, when he was in high school, started a small group that met to pray during one of the school’s free periods. “By my senior year,” he said, “it had grown into a community of 90 students.” However, the administration later prohibited them from praying during school hours, including lunch, even though the group had been meeting during school hours for the past three years. After trying to resolve the issue by meeting with the school administration, the young man filed a lawsuit against the school district. District leaders have since decided to allow students to meet to pray during lunch time (they got rid of the free period), so the lawsuit has been withdrawn.
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Other highschoolers shared stories about being discriminated against because they prayed at school. One girl said that when she and her friends wanted to pray for a former classmate’s brother, the principal banned them from doing so unless they hid so that no one else could see them praying. A Muslim girl who prays five times a day while covering her hair with a hijab said that students at school made fun of her for doing so. When she told the principal, the administrator placed the blame on her.
Additional stories of religious discrimination included that of a nine-year-old Catholic boy who came to class one day with ashes on his forehead in observance of Ash Wednesday. His teacher made him wipe off the ashes in front of the whole class.
A Jewish girl (now in high school) told how she was harassed because of her faith in middle school. Students would put swastikas on her belongings, bully her, and even put a picture of her face on Anne Frank’s body and sent it to three schools in the area. Said the girl, “I was terrified to say I was Jewish, and that should never be in anyone’s mind.”
What Does the New Federal Guidance Say?
The federal guidance states that a local educational agency (LEA) “must certify in writing to its SEA [State educational agency] that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as detailed in this updated guidance.” Local schools must comply with this certification in order to “receive funds under the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act].”
The guidance does not specify how LEAs are to go about the process of getting certified, leaving that up to the SEAs. SEAs must report to the Secretary of Education if any schools have not gotten certified and must also report if there are any complaints against a school for denying someone the “right to pray.”
The guidance not only addresses prayer but also a variety of religious rights and practices. For example, it states that, “Among other things, students may read their Bibles, Torahs, Korans, or other scriptures; say grace before meals; and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other non-instructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities.”
Among other provisions, the guidance explains how student and teacher rights are protected when it comes to groups or clubs and how students may express their religious beliefs in relation to their class work. Students are also to be allowed to dress according to their religious convictions, have equal access to school facilities, and be able to distribute religious literature so long as they do so within the school’s guidelines for any literature not related to school work.
These regulations, said the president, will help with the ongoing “cultural war” in our country. He said, “You have a side that believes so strongly in prayer and it is being restricted and it’s getting worse and worse. And I think we have made a big impact. We have loosened it up a lot and I want to loosen it up totally.”