Rob Boston is senior advisor at Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and editor of AU’s Church & State magazine. He is the author of Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State (second edition, 2003) and Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do (2014).
President Trump’s new school prayer guidance is the perfect example of a solution in search of a problem. Nearly 60 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a perfectly reasonable compromise to determine what religious activity is appropriate in public schools: The government can’t sponsor it. No child can be forced, compelled, or pressured to take part in religious activities. Students of all religious faiths, as well as those who have no religious beliefs, should be made to feel welcome in their own public schools. At the same time, voluntary, non-disruptive forms of student prayer are permissible. Students may read religious books and participate in religious clubs during their free time. Public schools may teach about religion as an academic subject in an objective manner.
The court’s school prayer rulings give wide berth to religion if it’s voluntarily chosen. But for Christian nationalists, this is not enough. Since 1962, we’ve seen repeated efforts to pass some sort of constitutional amendment codifying official school prayer. While all of these amendments have failed, their persistence as a political issue is troubling.
Politicians also have a disturbing tendency to exploit the issue for hoped-for gains at the polls. The Trump administration’s guidelines for religious activity in public schools are an example—they’re mainly a sop to the president’s evangelical Christian base. Much of the document simply recycles advice already issued by the Clinton administration in 1995 and the Bush administration in 2003, but there are areas where the new guidelines push the envelope and assert that certain activities, such as so-called “student-initiated” prayer at school-sponsored activities or teachers praying with students, may be legal when that is by no means accurate. The guidelines could sow confusion about the law and lead to schoolchildren feeling pressured to participate in religious activities.
The problem with the narrative around prayer in public schools—and the larger discussion our country is having over religious freedom—is one of terminology, specifically, how we define “religious freedom.” To some, “religious freedom” really means religious privilege and the ability to cite religious beliefs to deny the rights of others. There was a time when such a twisted definition of religious freedom would have been rejected, but the Trump administration and supporters of Christian nationalist initiatives like Project Blitz are working assiduously to redefine religious freedom through a host of regulatory changes and policies, and, alarmingly, courts are often buying it.
The problem is what the Trump administration and its evangelical allies are advocating for is not religious freedom. Traditionally, religious freedom in the United States has meant the right to worship (or not) as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm others. It means the right to join together with fellow believers to build houses of worship, spread religious messages, and create a sense of community bound together by shared beliefs.
A theory of religious freedom that relies on compulsion, coercion, or denial of the rights of others is alien to our Constitution and American values. We all know that the leaders of a house of worship have an absolute right to decide who gets their services. Such decisions are protected by the First Amendment. But it does not follow that the owner of a secular, for-profit business has that same right to deny services to customers, fire employees, or deny workers access to birth control in their health care plans because it offends his faith.
Policies that equate religious freedom with discrimination and take away the rights of others cause real harm to real people. When LGBTQ people are turned away from a business, there is actual dignity harm but also another harm that is more difficult to quantify: the message that who you are or who you love—indeed your very existence—isn’t just wrong but has no value. You can be ignored, denied, or devalued. When women are denied contraceptive access in a secular workplace, the medical harm is real and accompanied by a dangerous message: Your rights depend upon someone else’s religion.
The more we move away from the traditional principle of religious freedom, the more we move toward one based on compulsion and control—two things our Founding Fathers repudiated in matters of religion.
Some matters of human existence are so intimate—such as how (or if) to relate to God, how to express your sexuality, whether to start a family—that they absolutely must be left to individual conscience. The redefinition of religious freedom currently being pushed on our nation by the Trump administration inserts the heavy-handed weight of the government into these decisions in a most unwelcome way. Worse, it drapes the noble principle of religious freedom in the shabby garment of discrimination.
Despite current levels of polarization, Americans still have a tendency to gravitate toward common ground. While that’s often a good instinct, it’s less useful in the current debates over religious freedom because what is being promoted by Christian nationalists isn’t really religious freedom—it is a demand that some Americans, usually members of groups that are in the minority, live under, or subsidize, the faith of the majority. That’s religious privilege, not religious freedom, and it has no place in our democracy.
The decades-old wrangling over state-sponsored school prayer provides a lesson for the current debate over the meaning of religious freedom: It is dangerous to accept even a little bit of oppression based on religion. The answer is always to resist it, by all legal means.