President Trump’s recently 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 from 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.
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 signaling 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.