Politics of School Prayer

February 13, 2020

On January 16, 2020, President Donald Trump announced updated guidance for school prayer to mark Religious Freedom Day. “In public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith, or following their religious beliefs,” said President Trump. The administration says the new guidelines, which provide recommendations for how to regulate prayer during non-instructional time, will support the rights of religious people, including students who report their freedom to pray has been violated. Alongside recommendations on school prayer, the administration also announced plans to remove “regulatory burdens” on faith-based social service providers that are supported by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Reactions to the school prayer guidelines have been mixed, with some experts noting how the policies are “nearly identical” to guidance issued by the Bush administration in 2003. Some religious leaders, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have welcomed the increased guidance on school prayer. However, the Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups have been quick to criticize the plan to overhaul regulations for faith-based providers as a means to “roll back existing protections for LGBTQ and other people seeking government services and benefits.” 

The recently announced policies are also significant as the 2020 presidential election approaches, overlaying broader differences in how candidates approach the place of religion in American society. Speaking at an evangelical rally in Florida, President Trump painted his policies on religious freedom as protecting faith from a war waged by Democrats. Whereas President Trump has made religious freedom at home and abroad a key part of his platform, candidates in the Democratic primary have focused less on the issue as they struggle to connect with evangelical voters. The issue of religious freedom, once a subject of bipartisan consensus, will continue to shape political debates as Americans head to the polls. 

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How have faith communities responded to the new policies? Why has religious freedom in the United States become a major area of concern for the political right? What role might debates over school prayer and religious freedom more broadly play in the 2020 presidential election? Has religious freedom become a polarized (and polarizing) issue? If so, is it possible to (re)create a bipartisan coalition on religious freedom?

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