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What Trump’s Action on School Prayer Means (and Doesn’t Mean) for Students and Educators

By Evie Blad — January 16, 2020 4 min read
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President Donald Trump will promote new guidance on prayer in schools in an Oval Office event Thursday afternoon, part of several steps the administration will take to mark National Religious Freedom Day, administration officials said.

That guidance—which comes as the president continues election-year outreach to Evangelical Christians—does not introduce any new legal requirements, but it does outline existing legal precedents.

Courts have held that students may pray at school alone or in groups, but that prayer may not be organized or sanctioned by the school. And, as with other forms of expression protected by the First Amendment, schools may only intervene if the prayer is disruptive to the learning environment.

That means a student can silently pray at her desk before taking a test or in the cafeteria before eating lunch or with a group of friends around the flagpole before school, as many students do.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in its current and past versions, requires the U.S. Department of Education to provide guidance on prayer in schools every two years, but that guidance hasn’t been updated since 2003, a senior administration official said.

“President Trump is committed to making sure that people of faith, particularly children,” are not discouraged from constitutionally protected rights to pray, an administration official said in a conference call with reporters.

The new school prayer guidance, which will be published in the Federal Register Thursday Jan. 21, reiterates requirements under existing law that school districts must annually certify to their state departments of education that they have “no policy prohibiting participation in constitutionally protected prayer,” officials said. State education departments must have a process for fielding complaints the right to prayer has been violated, and they must report any complaints or lawsuits over school prayer to the federal Education Department, the guidance says.

The guidance also reiterates that student religious organizations must be given the same access to school facilities as secular groups, which the Education Department previously noted in 1998 guidance that is still in place.

Religious Organizations

In addition to the prayer guidance, nine federal agencies, including the Education Department, will issue guidance that lifts requirements from an executive order signed by President Barack Obama that faith-affiliated social service programs receiving federal funds must provide notice of alternative providers. It’s important to note that Trump already revoked that executive order in 2018.

Also Thursday, the administration will issue a directive that religiously affiliated organizations may receive federal grant money passed through state agencies, even if their states have laws that prohibit public funding for religious organizations. Those laws, known as Blaine amendments, are the subject of a case on tax-credit scholarships for private schools that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next week.

Political Context

Trump telegraphed his plans for updated prayer guidance at a December “Evangelicals for Trump” event in Miami. And, though it does not introduce new legal requirements, he’s likely to mention it at campaign rallies as he seeks to fire up Evangelical Christian supporters who’ve become a key part of his political base.

“I will be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in their schools,” Trump said at the event. “They want to take that right along with many other rights.”

That event came shortly after Christianity Today, a popular Christian magazine founded by Evangelist Billy Graham, published an editorial questioning Christians’ support of the president.

In his remarks, Trump mentioned the Smith County, Tenn., school district, where two atheist families alleged in a lawsuit that educators promoted school-sanctioned prayer during assemblies and Bible distribution at events.

“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. Public schools belong to all and all belong in public schools. School officials’ blatant promotion of Christianity cannot be reconciled with this principle. Nor can school officials’ promotion of religion be reconciled,” the suit says, according to the Tennessean.

In the groundbreaking 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, justices ruled that the New York State Board of Regents could not set aside school time for an official prayer every day, even though the prayer wasn’t tied to a particular religion and students were not required to say it.

“When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain,” read the majority opinion in the case. “But the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause go much further than that. Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. “

Photo: Getty