President Donald Trump gave a full-throated defense of school prayer on Religious Freedom Day, signing updates to the guidance on constitutional prayer in public schools.
“We call this the right to pray,” the president declared. Trump vowed that under his tenure, “we will not let anyone push God from the public square.”
Matt Sharp, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attended the event and briefed PJ Media about the importance of the guidance.
Trump’s new guidance “requires schools to certify that their policies protect student speech. They expanded the existing guidelines,” Sharp explained. “It’s not limited to prayer, but it can involve handing out religious literature and invitations to church events.”
“It was both a reaffirmation of the importance of protecting students’ rights coupled with a real enforcement plan,” he explained. Along with the guidance, the administration released new regulations at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, and many other agencies ensuring that the government does not discriminate against religious organizations. These rules built on Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017), in which the Supreme Court reversed a ruling excluding a church-run school from a government program to rebuild school playgrounds.
ADF defended Trinity Lutheran in that case. It also defended Chase Windebank, a student who started a prayer group at his public high school and ran it for nearly four years before the principal ordered him to stop, claiming prayer meetings violate the separation of church and state. After ADF filed a lawsuit, the school reversed this policy, restoring Windebank’s First Amendment right to religious freedom. Trump hosted Windebank at the event.
“Our point is, no student should have to go through what Chase went through,” Sharp told PJ Media. “There in the Oval Office, several students, kids, even a teacher, talked about facing opposition when they tried to pray in school. We’re seeing more and more efforts to limit prayer in schools,” he added.
The ADF lawyer compared Trump’s efforts to protect prayer in school to his efforts against political correctness when it comes to wishing people “Merry Christmas.”
“It’s just like pushing back on the argument ‘You can’t say Merry Christmas.’ This is pushing back against the argument ‘Keep your prayer at home.'”
The administration’s new policies have real teeth to protect prayer in schools and other forms of religious expression, Sharp insisted. “These are concrete steps of expanding religious liberty.”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins also praised the new rules.
“For years, we’ve watched secularists pressure school administrators into telling students that they can’t pray, read their Bibles, or talk about their faith in class. Some school officials are willing participants in the secularists’ intimidation campaign while others fear the lack of funding to fight threatened lawsuits. Now the tables are turned,” Perkins said in a statement. “The onus is now on states to certify that they are compliant with U.S. Department of Education guidelines which protect students’ religious freedom. If schools fail to protect religious freedom, they now run the risk of losing federal funding.”