On this year’s National Religious Freedom Day, President Donald Trump issued a policy letter on students’ constitutional right to pray at school, marking his administration’s latest effort to protect the freedom of religious expression on campuses.
“In a sacred principle of our republic, the government must never stand between the people and God,” the president, joined by a group of students from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, tweeted on Thursday afternoon. “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.”
The U.S. Department of Education will send the president’s directive to education secretaries and officials in all 50 states as a reminder that schools may jeopardize their federal funding if they deny student’s religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. States are required to make sure their school districts have no policies restricting constitutionally protected prayer and to refer violators to the U.S. Secretary of Education.
The guidance regarding prayer in public schools will also be updated. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires the Education Department to provide guidance on prayer in schools on a biennial basis. However, the Department’s website suggests that the guidance hasn’t been updated since 2003.
The new guideline (pdf), does not bring any change to existing laws or regulations. However, it is expected to empower students who want to pray at school by re-affirming their rights, including reading religious texts or praying during non-class periods, organize prayer groups, and express their religious beliefs in their school assignments.
Trump signaled his intention for an updated school prayer guidance at a December 2019 campaign rally, as he sought to bolster support from Evangelical Christians, who have been a critical part of his political base since the 2016 presidential election.
“I will be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in their schools,” the president promised to his evangelical supporters “Evangelicals for Trump” event in Miami. “They want to take that right along with many other rights.”
Hours before Trump’s White House event, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a proposed rule aimed to put faith-based education institutions on equal footing when competing for federal grants by removing Obama-era requirements that limited their abilities to obtain those grants.
The Department’s proposed rule changes are consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer in 2017. Trinity Lutheran Church, which operates a licensed preschool in Missouri, was denied by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources when it tried to apply for a playground equipment grant, only because of its religious identity. The Supreme Court, with a 7-2 conservative majority, ruled in favor of Trinity, stating that the exclusion of churches or any other faith-based organizations from an “otherwise neutral and secular aid program” is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.