Trump Administration Defends Constitutional Prayer and Religious Liberty in Schools

January 16, 2020 Updated: January 17, 2020

WASHINGTON—On Jan. 16, National Religious Freedom Day, the White House announced updated guidelines “on constitutional prayer in public schools.”

The guidelines state that public schools can’t discriminate against students for praying in school or against organizations of religious affiliations.

“The administration is taking three big actions to ensure that people of faith are always able to exercise their rights to religious expression. These actions are just the latest President Trump has taken to defend the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion,” Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan said during a morning press briefing.

The three actions ensure religious groups get equal funding, protect prayer in schools, and mandate equal treatment of all groups before the federal government.

Protecting Prayer in School

Grogan cited a 2018 case in which a group of middle school students in Texas were told they weren’t allowed to pray for a friend who had passed away. The students were forced to pray behind a curtain or in the gym, away from other students.

The guidelines that the Trump administration are introducing seek to limit this form of discrimination.

A senior administration official stated: “One of the proposed regulations is that, 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. This places religious student groups on equal footing with secular student groups at public institutions of higher education.”

Similarly, the Department of Education plans to add a requirement to public elementary and secondary schools regarding funding eligibility. Public schools that infringe on students’ right to freedom of religious expression risk losing federal funding.

“Separate and apart from the notice of proposed rulemaking, the department is doing something that is very unique to the Department of Education, and it is fulfilling a statutory requirement to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools,” said a senior administration official.

The administration also seeks to revise and update the 2003 guidance regarding prayer in public schools. The goal is to allow students to alert authorities more easily when they are being discriminated against.

Later on Jan. 16, President Donald Trump hosted a group of educators and students from various religions, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims, in the Oval Office to commemorate National Religious Freedom Day.

Students shared their stories of religious discrimination from schoolmates and the ways they overcame the discrimination. Educators shared the work they’ve done to help protect their students from religious discrimination by creating organizations or providing support.

Defending Religious Freedom

In addition to protecting students’ rights to religious expression in school, the Trump administration is taking further action to protect religious groups and organizations from discrimination from the federal government.

According to Grogan, “Nine agencies will be releasing proposed rules that will ensure that religious and non-religious organizations are treated equally by the federal government, and that organizations are not discriminated against simply because they are religious in nature.”

The goal is to give all organizations, regardless of affiliation, an equal seat at the table when interacting with federal agencies.

“Finally, the Office of Management and Budget is releasing a memo that requires federal agencies to ensure that not just their own grant-making practices, but also the grant-making practices of state recipients of federal funding, comply with the First Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court,” said Grogan.

Together, these moves will lift the regulations the Obama administration placed on religious groups regarding eligibility for federal grants and funding.

“Our Founders understood that no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions,” Trump said.