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Fact facts: President Trump’s new guidance on religion and prayer in schools

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When students go back to school Monday morning, they will have more protections to exercise their constitutional freedom of religion than at any time in decades. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued updated federal guidelines requiring public schools to respect the religious liberty of students and teachers – or lose federal funding.

The document has the unwieldy title, “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” However, it contains pithy truths and robust protections for people of every faith in the nation’s 132,853 K-12 public schools.

“Students and teachers do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,’” the document states forthrightly.

It then breaks down the rights of students and teachers, and the privileges school districts enjoy.

For students, the guidance states:

  • Students may “speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics”;
  • “[S]tudents 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”;
  • Students may pray during a moment of silence;
  • Students may wear religious symbols or clothing with religious messages to the same extent that they may wear secular-themed clothing;
  • Students may express their faith in their assignments;
  • Student speakers may pray or mention their faith in school assemblies and graduation ceremonies;
  • “Students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, and ‘see you at the pole’ gatherings before school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular student activities groups. Such groups must be given the same access to school facilities for assembling as is given to other noncurricular groups, without discrimination because of the religious perspective of their expression”;
  • Christian groups must have the same right to advertise their events as secular groups (on school announcements, posters, etc.), and the school cannot force them to add a disclaimer to their ads unless they do so equally for secular student organizations; and
  • Schools may excuse students to partake in religious ceremonies off-campus, provided they don’t punish or reward such activity.

The guidance makes clear that teachers also have rights:

  • Teachers may pray or hold Bible studies, together or privately, even during the school day, but only during times when they are allowed to engage in private activities; and
  • “Teachers may participate in their personal capacities in privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies or similar events.”

Schools may also teach about religious doctrines. However, they may not proselytize on behalf of any faith.

The guidance accepts the Supreme Court status quo ante that “teachers and other public school officials, acting in their official capacities, may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities,” or even exert “subtle coercive pressures.” This is not the way the Founding Fathers understood the issue.

The guidance – which, by law must be updated every two years – has not been changed or reissued since 2003. At least two, two-term presidents thought they had more important matters to attend to: George W. Bush pursued “No Child Left Behind,” the Medicare Part D entitlement, and the TARP bailout. Barack Obama enacted Obamcare, funded state Medicaid expansion, and presided over a budget-busting “stimulus” act that failed to stimulate the economy. The evidence indicates both would have fared better had they protected their citizens’ constitutional rights.

President Trump put teeth into his provision by mandating that every school district must certify that it respects students’ constitutional rights every year by October 1, or lose federal funding. This ensures greater protection for people of faith – rights public schools have frequently denied them, as several victims noted in a White House event on January 17.

While protecting liberty is a most appropriate and welcome use of taxpayer dollars, the power of federal funding is a two-edged sword. The previous administration threatened to defund schools over much different criteria. As long as local school districts receive enormous sums of money from the federal government, the president will have the power to coerce them into hewing to his or her own political preferences.

It is terrifying that public respect for the most fundamental, first liberty depends on the will of the chief executive. Such are the fruits of the growing American welfare state.

For more, on the topic, you may listen to my interview on this week’s “Mornings with Carmen LeBerge” on the Faith Radio Network, embedded below. The segment begins at approximately 12:45. (The first segment discussed President Trump’s 2020 Davos speech, where he encouraged world leaders to “reject the perennial prophets of doom.)

You can download the full hour here.

You can read the full guidance here.

Action item: Thank Secretary Betsy DeVos via e-mail at Betsy.DeVos@ed.gov.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.