The Debates Over Religious Freedom in the United States: What Debates?

By: James W. Fraser

February 13, 2020

Politics of School Prayer

Speaking on the 2020 Religious Freedom Day, January 16, President Donald Trump complained that “In public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith, or following their religious beliefs.” To combat this problem, the administration issued guidelines on when prayer was possible in schools and how student religious freedom rights should be respected. The new regulations seemed like one more volley in the growing national divide between defenders of religious activity and a feared liberal assault on the same…. Except that it wasn’t.

The first problem with the Trump complaint and the administration’s new guidelines is that the guidelines are very similar—indeed nearly identical—to guidelines issued by the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Both Clinton and Bush sought to resolve a three-decade culture war about prayer in schools that began with the Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision that banned officially sponsored prayer in schools. In fact, it was under Clinton and his Secretary of Education Richard Riley that the clearest guidelines came about. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines saying that “Students therefor have the same right to engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage in other comparable activity. For example, students may read their bibles or other scripture, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same extent they may engage in comparable nondisruptive activities.” President Clinton himself added that “the First Amendment permits—and protects—a greater degree of religious expression in public schools than many Americans now understand.” 

In 1998 Secretary Riley expanded the guidelines to say:

"Generally, students may pray in a nondisruptive manner when not engaged in school activities or instruction, and subject to the rules that normally pertain to the applicable setting. Specifically, students in informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, may pray and discuss their religious views with each other...may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics...Students may also participate in before or after school events with religious content such as 'see you at the flag pole' gatherings."

Ironically, the 2020 guidelines, issued with such fanfare and a presidential provocation, say virtually the same thing—in some cases with the same words. (Although one wonders why the current administration dropped the word flag in the previous “see you at the flag pole.”) What is going on that in 2020, restating what has been settled bipartisan federal policy for 25 years has become fuel for a partisan fire that is raging in the country? The guidelines have remained pretty much the same through four administrations—two Republican and two Democratic. School districts generally follow these guidelines and when they don’t, it is often the liberal ACLU, not the Trump education department, that defends religious students. As both a liberal educator and a committed Christian (yes, people can be both), I strongly support these guidelines and the core First Amendment rights underpinning them. I also want them to be enforced for all students be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or “nones.” But something else is at stake with the fanfare surrounding the announcement of the Trump version of the old policies—at least two things:

I. President Trump depends on the voting support of conservative evangelical Christians. If the president can keep reassuring these voters that he is the only protector of their rights and that his opponents are a serious threat to them, then he once more solidifies this support in a presidential election year. It is unreasonable to assume that most people—religious or otherwise—will take the time to look up the previous Department of Education guidelines to note the similarities. If president Trump can convince conservative Christian voters that they need to look the other way about his many failings—moral and otherwise—because he is the only person standing between them and a liberal Democratic assault on their faith, he will be successful in holding an essential voting bloc. And, conversely, if the so-called “assault on faith” by liberals is seen to be a fabrication designed to blind voters, then Trump’s evangelical support may be in jeopardy. The new guidelines may be many things, but the Trump election year announcement of them is an effort to warp the truth to stay in power.

II. There may be more, however, to the high-profile roll-out of the new guidelines. The administration’s embrace of relatively non-controversial school policies provides cover for other policies which represent a dangerous infringement of rights. While the right of every public-school student to speak about their faith and to pray in appropriate settings must be secure, the administration is also developing policies that will seriously undermine rights. Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David is on target when he says, “The right to believe and to exercise one’s faith is a core American value. The right to discriminate with taxpayer dollars is not.” 

But in step after step, the administration is advancing the right to discriminate against women, people of color, LGBTQ citizens, and immigrants. When federal funding is made available to schools that discriminate on the basis of belief or when federal grants are made to community agencies that refuse services on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation, or conviction, that is discrimination with tax dollars. It is not defending rights, religious or otherwise. And when such policies are announced in tandem with religious freedom rights with a purpose of strengthening the belief that if not for Trump the core rights of people of faith would be under siege, the obvious conclusion is that retaining voting blocs is more important to the administration than any concern for the rights of American citizens, religious or otherwise. We are better than that.

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