The Trump administration released its new guidelines regarding prayer in schools on Thursday and there is, in fact, very little that is new about them. With one small exception, and it only involves a reporting requirement for complaints, they are essentially proposing the status quo, protecting rights that have long been protected already.
The right to pray in schools, as long as it is not disruptive and does not require anyone else to listen or participate, has long been protected by multiple Supreme Court precedents. Every single day in schools all over the country, students say grace before lunch, utter a quick prayer before taking a test, gather in groups before and after school or on breaks to pray collectively, pray around the flagpole in the morning, and many other fully protected forms of prayer. And guess what? No one tries to stop them, not even the evil ACLU. They aren’t disrupting anything, they aren’t compelling anyone else to take part, and they are perfectly within their rights.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said her department plans to remind schools that students and teachers have a constitutional right to pray in public schools, and that student-led religious organizations should get to access to public facilities just as secular ones.
“Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers and faith-based institutions,” DeVos said. “The department’s efforts will level the playing field between religious and nonreligious organizations competing for federal grants, as well as protect First Amendment freedoms on campus and the religious liberty of faith-based institutions. I proudly share President Trump’s commitment to religious freedom and the First Amendment.”
The Education Department also plans to issue guidance that will require local school districts to certify that they have no rules or regulations that conflict with students’ right to pray at school. It will also require states to notify the Education Department if there are complaints against a school district regarding the right to pray. The department does not have similar reporting requirements for states when a school district is accused of other types of discrimination.
As for religious groups having the same access to school facilities as secular ones, let me introduce them to the Supreme Court cased called Lamb’s Chapel v Center Moriches School District. It was a unanimous ruling handed down 30 years ago that established that right. Then I’ll introduce them to a law called the Equal Access Act, passed in 1993, that codifies that same right. No one has questioned it for nearly two generations now, nor should they. But I think we should remember this righteous support for equal access the next time a Christian group tries to prevent the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance club or a Satanic Temple club in a school somewhere. It happens quite regularly.
So the only actual change is the requirement to report any complaints that are filed, which is pretty much a meaningless gesture. The Christian right will no doubt applaud these guidelines boisterously and act like Trump is the savior of religious freedom, oblivious to the fact that he actually changed nothing at all. All hail mighty Trump, warrior for the status quo!