On National Religious Freedom Day, Thursday, the Trump administration released what it calls an updated guidance laying out “constitutional protections for prayer and religious expression in public schools.”
“You have the right to pray,” President Donald Trump declared during a ceremony in the Oval Office. “And that’s a very important and powerful right. There’s nothing more important than that.”
Surrounded by students who administration officials contend have suffered discrimination for practicing religion at school, the president repeated his accusation that his Democratic opponents are waging a war against the faithful. “There is a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict and even prohibit religious expression,” he said.
Trump has made religious freedom a key issue in his domestic and foreign policy, helping to solidify his support among conservative evangelical Christians.
The administration said the government guidelines remind public school administrators that federal funds can be withdrawn if they violate their students’ rights to religious expression, and will help improve individuals’ ability to file complaints if they are denied the ability to participate in protected religious expression. “It will empower students and others to know and exercise their rights,” said Joe Grogan, director of the U.S. Domestic Policy Council, in a briefing for reporters.
No apparent change
Although the U.S. Education Department has not released details of the updated guidance, there appears to be no change to existing laws or regulations. While school-sponsored prayer in American public schools is prohibited under a 1962 Supreme Court ruling, individual and group prayers on school grounds are allowed. In fact, under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, school districts must certify each year that their policies do not prevent or deny participation in constitutionally protected prayer in elementary and secondary schools.
“These are mechanisms that are already in place,” said Quardricos Driskell, adjunct professor of religion and politics at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. “The president is trying to appeal to the fact that it is National Religious Freedom Day. I also think the president is trying to appeal to his base.”
Earlier this month, at an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally in Miami, Trump pledged to bring prayer to school. “Very soon I’ll be taking action to safeguard students and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools,” Trump said.
According to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, 43% of U.S. adults, about 110 million people, identify with Protestantism; 59% of those, or 64 million, are born-again or evangelical Christians.
More than 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election.
Chad Seales, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, called Trump’s move “politically motivated” to appease white evangelicals who have focused on the issue of school prayer since the Supreme Court’s landmark 1962 decision.
Seales added that, historically, protecting religious freedom meant protecting the rights of individual citizens to practice their religion without being compelled by the government. But since the 1980s — and particularly under Trump — “that language has become a lot more complicated as it’s been fraught with political ambition,” Seales said.
Federal funds for religious groups
The Trump administration is also proposing changes that would make it easier for religious groups that provide social services to access federal funds.
Grogan said that nine federal agencies, including the Education Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department, will propose rules to ensure that federal grants and state grants with federal funding can be accessed by religious organizations in addition to secular groups, and that “organizations are not discriminated against simply because they are religious in nature.”
“I support the fact that he is broadening the scope of religious freedoms,” said Driskell. “My concern is that this religious freedom extends only to Christians, and particularly the evangelical wing of Christianity.”
Additionally, the rules would lift an Obama-era executive order that compelled religious organizations to inform the people they serve that they can receive the same service from a secular provider.
VOA’s Masood Farivar contributed to this report.