FFRF praises Education Dept. guidance on keeping public schools secular

The U.S. Department of Education’s updated guidance for prayer and religious expression in public schools correctly emphasizes that schools must protect students’ religious liberty by remaining secular.

Christian nationalists, including some lawmakers, have wrongly asserted that a recent Supreme Court case allows teachers to pray with students, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased that the Department of Education has set the record straight. The Department’s new guidance puts school administrators on notice that they could jeopardize their federal funding if they fail to protect students’ First Amendment rights, including the right to a secular public school.

FFRF notes the stark contrast in tone between the newly revised guidance and the prior version, released in 2020 by the Trump administration. The Trump version focused on protecting constitutional prayers, but was woefully inadequate in terms of advising schools how to avoid unconstitutional prayers.

By contrast, the new guidance emphasizes that school officials may not coerce students into religious activity. This is despite a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the court ruled that a coach’s after-game prayers were constitutional because they were “private, personal prayers.” Notwithstanding the actual facts underlying that case, which showed the coach’s prayers to be anything but private and personal, the case did not change the longstanding rule that students have a right to a secular public school. The new Department guidance correctly summarizes this issue, and advises schools that when teachers, coaches, or other school officials are operating in their capacity as school representatives, they must not promote religion.

Specifically, the guidance explicates that “school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity,” though they may engage in private prayer during the workday “where they are not acting in their official capacities and where their prayer does not result in any coercion of students.” Further, the guidance emphasizes that schools “may take reasonable measures to ensure that students are not pressured or encouraged to join in the private prayer of their teachers or coaches.”

The guidance lists several other circumstances that frequently lead to constitutional violations, including moments of silence, graduation ceremonies and religious music in public schools. These principles are all in line with the Kennedy decision and have been applied consistently since the U.S. Supreme Court first considered the issue of religion in public schools.

FFRF appreciates the accuracy of the new guidance, while noting that it could have gone further. For example, FFRF often receives complaints about adults who seek to pressure students into religious activity through student groups, which are ostensibly student-initiated and student-led. The law is clear under the federal Equal Access Act, but the new guidance unfortunately does not mention this issue.

“This new guidance is admirable because it seeks to protect the religious liberty of all students,” comments FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “It strikes the right balance by prohibiting school-sponsored prayers, while reminding schools that students are of course allowed to pray privately in school. As the old joke goes, so long as there are pop math quizzes in school, there will be prayers.”

Religious liberty requires a government that is free from religion, and nowhere is that more important than in our public schools. Students of all religions and no religion come together to learn, and trust their teachers and coaches to provide accurate and unbiased information. That trust is broken when school officials seek to abuse their position to try to indoctrinate students with their own personal religious beliefs. FFRF will continue to vigorously advocate for public school students’ religious liberty rights by putting a stop to school-sponsored religious activities.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members and several chapters across the country. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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