On Wednesday, President Trump proclaimed January 16, 2020 as National Religious Freedom Day — a tradition carried out by every U.S. president since President George H. W. Bush first proclaimed it in 1993.
On Thursday, Trump held a press conference in the Oval Office to announce new guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public schools and a new set of proposed rules from federal agencies to roll back restrictions from the Obama administration on the funding of religious organizations.
“In a sacred principle of our republic, the government must never stand between the people and God,” stated the president. “Yet, in public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith, or following their religious beliefs.”
Several students and teachers who have experienced religious discrimination joined the president at his announcement.
Among them was freshman high school student Hannah Allen from Honey Grove, a small town in Northeast Texas.
She recounted her experience at the town’s middle school in 2018, saying, “Me and a group of students from my school wanted to pray for our former classmate’s brother who had gotten hurt in an accident. After the prayer, [Principal Lee Frost] told us, ‘Don’t do that again.’ The next day, parents had called and complained. He told us that we could pray, but said we had to hide in the gym, or behind a curtain, or somewhere away from everyone else.”
First Liberty, a Plano-based religious liberty advocacy group and law firm, became involved in the case and sent a letter to the Honey Grove ISD demanding that the district reject the principal’s policy.
“By mandating that Hannah and the other students hide when they pray, Principal Frost sends a message to Hannah and all the other students in the school that prayer is illegitimate, disfavored, and should not occur in public,” the letter reads.
The organization also noted that by making the students pray in private, the principal was failing to treat religion neutrally, since other expressions of free speech were not required to be conducted out of the sight of other students.
After the district received the letter from First Liberty, the school ended its disputed policy on prayer in public.
“I know that if this can happen in a small town in Texas, it can happen anywhere across America,” said Allen. “And that’s not right. No one should feel ashamed of their faith, especially in school or anywhere.”
With the new guidance from the Department of Education, local educational agencies must “certify in writing” to its respective state educational agency that it does not have any policy that “prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.”
The guidance itself on what is considered “constitutionally protected prayer” largely focuses on neutrality, so that while public schools will not advance any particular religion, they allow for students like Allen to practice their faith.
There are few deviations in the 2020 description of “constitutionally protected prayer” when compared to the last version that was created in 2003.
Texas state law also aligns with the protections on prayer, providing that, “A public school student has an absolute right to individually, voluntarily, and silently pray or meditate in school in a manner that does not disrupt the instructional or other activities of the school.”
The same law also stipulates, “A person may not require, encourage, or coerce a student to engage in or refrain from such prayer or meditation during any school activity.”
According to the department, the guidance also clarifies that states are required “to provide a clear process for students, parents, and teachers to report violations of their right to pray.”
In addition to the guidance on prayer, the department is also issuing new guidance on religious expressions.
Under this section, are several points:
- “Students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities.”
- “Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion.”
- “Schools enjoy substantial discretion in … school uniforms. Schools, however, may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation.”
- “Where school officials have a practice of excusing students from class on the basis of parents’ requests for accommodation of nonreligious needs, religiously motivated requests for excusal may not be accorded less favorable treatment.”
Besides the guidance on prayer and religious expression in public schools, several executive agencies are also proposing new rules that will “roll back discriminatory regulations on religious service organizations,” according to Trump.
A fact sheet from the White House states, “The Office of Management and Budget is also releasing a memo requiring Federal agencies to ensure that the grant-making practices of state recipients of Federal funding comply with the First Amendment.”
“The right of students and teachers to freely exercise their faith will always be protected, including the right to pray,” said Trump.
Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. While recently finishing his degree in Political Science from Azusa Pacific University, he also interned in the U.S. Senate and co-authored a book on C. S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. In his spare time, he might be reading up on Dostoevsky or attempting to write a novel.