President Donald Trump is promising “big action” to promote school prayer, tapping into the long-controversial issue of religion in public schools as he seeks to rally the evangelicals who were key to his 2016 election.
“We will not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the hard left,” Trump said at a rally with evangelical supporters at a Florida megachurch on Jan. 3. “Very soon, I’ll be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools. We’re doing a big action, Attorney General Bill Barr.”
Trump is scheduled to announce “guidance on constitutional prayer in public schools” during an event in the Oval Office on Thursday, which is National Religious Freedom Day, according to his schedule released by the White House.
“President Trump is committed to making sure that people of faith, particularly children, are not subjected to illegal punishment or pressure for exercising their constitutionally protected rights,” White House Director of the Domestic Policy Council Joe Grogan said during a press call Thursday. “The guidance will remind school districts of the rights of students, parents and teachers and will empower students and others to confidently know and exercise their rights.”
The move is an update to guidance that was originally issued in 2003 and would require local schools to certify annually that they have no policy preventing participation in constitutionally protected prayer. It would require state education departments to report to the U.S. Education Department any schools that have failed to make that certification and any complaints against a school for denying someone the right to engage in prayer.
The U.S. Education Department is also proposing a rule to strengthen the rights of religious student groups at public universities. “As a condition of funding, a public institution of higher education cannot deny a religious student group the same benefits, privileges and rights that other secular student groups have,” a senior administration official, speaking on background, said during Thursday’s call.
While the First Amendment supports the free exercise of religion, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools cannot promote prayer or religious symbols. The updated guidance does not introduce new legal requirements, but it reaffirms existing regulations and rights.
“Private prayer, to the extent that it would ever be interfered with, is already protected by the First Amendment and there are very, very few cases where any government official has tried to interfere with a private student’s right to pray,” says Frank Ravitch, a Michigan State University law professor who has written about school prayer.
Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to support school prayer, according to a Gallup poll showing that overall American support for daily prayer in public school classrooms had fallen from 70% in 1999 to 61% in 2014. Protestants and other Christians were also far more likely than people with no religious preference to support daily prayer in the classroom and student-led prayer at graduation ceremonies.
And Trump has seen consistently high support from white evangelicals throughout his presidency. Exit polls showed that Trump won 81% of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 general election, and a December poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 79% of white evangelical Protestants approve of how Trump is handling his job as president. By comparison, less than half of all other Americans approve.
There have been some cracks in that support, notably when Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine, published an editorial in December calling for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, describing his conduct as “profoundly immoral.” But other evangelical leaders quickly rallied behind Trump in response.
“Essentially what’s going on here is it’s pandering to social conservatives,” Ravitch says. “That’s really what this is about.”
The school prayer guidance is one of a few actions the Trump Administration is rolling out Thursday to promote religious freedom.
“The administration is committed to using every tool at its disposal to protect the rights of faith-based organizations to operate without unlawful government impediment,” Grogan said. “Taken together, these actions represent the President’s commitment to protecting free exercise for individual believers and for religious organizations.”
A lawsuit over ‘school-sponsored prayer’
In his remarks at the Miami rally, Trump criticized a lawsuit brought by atheist students and their families, who say the Smith County School System in Carthage, Tenn., has for years “routinely promoted and inculcated Christian religious beliefs by sponsoring religious activities and conveying religious messages to students.”
The suit filed in November alleges that school staff often have incorporated official prayer into school assemblies, graduation ceremonies and athletic events, including pep rallies. Christian prayers are delivered over the loudspeaker before home football games, and athletic coaches participate in Christian prayers with students before games and practices. According to the lawsuit, Bible verses and other religious messages have been posted in school hallways, classrooms, a school cafeteria, and a school bathroom, and school leaders allowed the Gideons International, a Christian association, to distribute Bibles during class.
“All of these activities send a clear message to minority-faith and non-religious students that they are second-class members of the school community while their Christian peers are favored by school officials,” the suit says. It describes the plaintiffs, who include the father of two children and the mother and father of two other children, as feeling “coerced, both directly and indirectly, to participate in religious activities and expression that does not comport with their personal beliefs.”
“They feel like outsiders within their own school community,” the complaint says.
In a legal filing responding to the complaint, Smith County school officials denied many of the allegations, arguing that prayer by coaches before or after sporting events, over the loudspeaker at football games, or led by students at school events were not examples of “official” school prayer. The response described another alleged example of school-sponsored prayer as a “moment of silence.”
Smith County school officials named in the lawsuit and their attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
In his remarks at the rally, Trump voiced support for the school district. “I love Tennessee for allowing prayer in schools and in football games, but we will not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the hard left,” he said. “We’re not going to allow it, and we get involved with many of these cases.”
Advocates for the students involved in the suit say the complaint isn’t about preventing other students from exercising religion.
“Students already have broad rights to engage in religious exercise and expression in a public school, and that’s not what the case in Tennessee is about. This is about school officials imposing official prayer and religious messages on the student body, and that is not allowed,” says Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief who is representing the families in the Tennessee case.
“What I hope for our clients is that they will be able to attend their public school and participate in their public school community without being made to feel like second-class citizens or lesser people, simply because they don’t share the faith of their peers or the faith of school officials.”
The lawsuit is similar to others brought by the ACLU in the past. In 2017, the organization sued a school district in Louisiana, accusing the district of promoting religion by broadcasting Christian prayers each morning over the public address system and incorporating official prayer into athletic events, pep rallies and assemblies. In a 2018 consent decree, a federal judge ordered the district to end school-sponsored prayer.
Weaver says the ACLU plans to closely monitor any school prayer guidance issued by the Trump Administration. “If [Trump] does take some kind of action to try to inject school-sponsored prayer into public schools, we’re going to oppose it vigorously,” she says.
How the courts have ruled
Bruce Grelle — director of the Religion and Public Education Project at California State University, Chico — says the Supreme Court and lower courts have been clear: “Schools themselves, administrators, teachers, are supposed to be neutral when it comes to religion. They’re not to be promoting it. They’re not to be sponsoring or organizing religious activities or practices for students to participate in,” he says. “But students, themselves, are free to initiate and participate in various kinds of religious activities.”
The landmark 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale found that school-sponsored prayer, even if it’s nondenominational, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it represents government interference with religion. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that states and school boards can’t require the reading of Bible passages or prayers in schools. In 2000, the Court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that prayer over the public address system at school football games — even if it is student-led and student-initiated — was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
But the role of religion in public schools remains a polarizing issue, and students’ encounters with it vary. Nearly 40% of public school teens say they see other students praying before school sporting events, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. And 8% of public school teens say a teacher has led their class in prayer, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling against the practice.
Last year, lawmakers in several states debated bills that would require the national motto, “In God We Trust,” to be displayed prominently in schools. Supporters have described the bills as patriotic, while critics — including the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation — have argued they pressure students into certain religious beliefs.
Trump has waded into the issue in the past. Last January, he tweeted support for controversial bills in several states to allow elective Bible literacy classes in public schools. It’s not unconstitutional for students to learn about the historical significance of the Bible in public schools, but critics argued that such legislation was an effort to promote Christianity.
In an October speech at Notre Dame Law School, Barr described public schools as “ground zero” for “attacks on religion,” warning that some public schools “are becoming secularized” and “inhospitable to families with traditional religious values.”
A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for the Education Department referred all inquiries to the White House.
Grelle says he expects public schools to remain a battle ground in the debate over the role of religion.
“There’s so much misunderstanding about what can and cannot be done or what should and should not be done according to legal principles in public schools,” he says. “That ignorance allows politicians at local as well as national levels to whip up their constituencies.”
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