Trump school prayer guidance inadequate, other regs worrisome

FFRF Supreme Court

President Trump’s just-released guidance on school prayer and religious instruction, issued on Religious Freedom Day, simply reiterates the state of law, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation contends that it misses the chance to adequately warn schools about common First Amendment violations.

The administration not only unveiled its “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools” but is also proposing problematic rules for nine federal agencies on social services programs and funding of faith-based organizations.

For instance, the Department of Homeland Security is proposing a rule to implement Trump’s executive order on May 3, 2018, to “remove regulatory burdens” on religious organizations. These so-called “regulatory burdens” are protections for taxpayers and recipients of federally funded services against the misappropriation of federal funds to advance a private faith-based organization’s religious goals, and they did not go far enough. Removing them sends a message to religious organizations that they are entitled to taxpayer funds and need not worry about misusing the funds to advance religion. The changes will undo decades of gradual progress on this issue and will violate the rights of conscience of both taxpayers and those using federally funded services.

The guidelines on school prayer and religious instruction do little more than restate more than 70 years of firm U.S. Supreme Court precedent protecting student rights of conscience. (At the conclusion is a summary of Supreme Court cases opposing religious worship in schools.)

Federal guidelines on religion in public school are not new — both the Clinton and Bush administrations issued such guidance. The Trump guidelines are not a vast departure from prior guidelines, but they do not go nearly far enough to safeguard students from overzealous public school employees who seek to use their government position to promote religion to other people’s children.

FFRF notes that student rights of freedom of conscience are violated any time teachers, principals or coaches misuse their positions and authority to proselytize a captive audience of students and school children, or otherwise endorse or promote their personal religious beliefs.

The problem that ought to be addressed is not the protection of constitutional prayer (such as private prayer in student clubs) in public schools, but the prevalence of unconstitutional prayer in public schools. The new guidelines are inadequate in this regard, and are primarily signalling to students with majority religious viewpoints that they should be publicly professing their religious beliefs. Instead of reiterating the right of students to pray privately, which no one challenges, the guidelines should have addressed common violations such as public school coaches baptizing their players, as recently happened in Alabama.

One new aspect of the Trump guidelines is an attempt to breath fresh life into an archaic public school certification requirement. The new guidelines state: “To the extent that the [state] has notice of a public legal charge or complaint such as a lawsuit filed against a [school district], alleging that the [district] denied a person the right to participate in constitutionally protected prayer, the [state] must report the complaint to the Secretary.” The plain effect of this provision is to encourage those students and school employees in the religious majority who want to use the school environment to proselytize. This new requirement gives a new weapon to the religious majority against their school, while minority religious and nonreligious students are unlikely to benefit from this provision in any way.

The goal appears to be not to be protecting student religious liberty but creating a pro-religious environment in schools and using students to exert majority religious principles on the rest of the student body.

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker points out that the Constitution already protects students’ right to pray. “There’s the old cliché that there will always be prayer in public schools — so long as there are math tests. Kids can pray privately, even form school bible and prayer clubs.”

School-fostered school prayers are a serious threat to the freedom of conscience of our nation’s students. During the Trump administration, FFRF has sent 519 letters to public schools where staff are imposing prayers on a captive audience of schoolchildren. FFRF has already stopped at least half of these constitutional violations.

“At FFRF, we know firsthand that there are too many teachers, coaches, and principals who already use their government power to impose their personal religion on children. That is the problem. That is where public schools and teachers and coaches actually need guidance,” explains FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, passed on Jan. 16, 1786, is a sweeping indictment of state-dictated religion. Written by Thomas Jefferson, it terms it “sinful and tyrannical” to compel a citizen to support a religion in which s/he disbelieves. It guarantees that no citizen “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,” or otherwise suffer on account of religious opinions or beliefs. The heart of the statute has been replicated in most state constitutions.

Supreme Court cases opposing religious worship in schools

  • McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948). Struck down religious instruction in public schools. The case involved school-sponsored religious instruction in which the sole nonreligious student, Jim McCollum, was placed in detention and persecuted by schoolmates in Champaign, Ill.
  • Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford, 14 J.N. 31 (1953), cert. denied 348 U.S. 816 (1954). Let stand a lower court ruling that the practice of allowing volunteers to distribute Gideon Bibles at public school was unconstitutional.
  • Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). Declared prayers in public school unconstitutional.
  • Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374. U.S. 203 (1963). Declared unconstitutional devotional bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public schools.
  • Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S., 97, 104 (1968). Struck down state law forbidding schools to teach the science of evolution.
  • Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980). Declared unconstitutional the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms.
  • Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985). Overturned law requiring daily "period of silence not to exceed one minute... for meditation or daily prayer."
  • Jager v. Douglas County School District, 862 F.2d 824 (11th Cir.), Cert. den. 490 U.S. 1090 (1989). Let stand a lower court ruling in Georgia that pre-game invocations at high school football games are unconstitutional.
  • Lee v. Weisman, 120 L.E. 2d 467/ 112 S.C.T. 2649 (1992). Ruled prayers at public school graduations an impermissible establishment of religion.
  • Berger v. Rensselaer, 982 F.2d, 1160 (7th Cir.) Cert. denied. 124 L.E. 2d 254 (1993). Let stand ruling barring access to Gideons to pass out bibles in Indiana schools.
  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000). Barred student-led prayers at public school functions.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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