President Trump has promised to ensure that students and teachers can exercise First Amendment rights to pray in school. Actually, they already can, and many do.
Trump’s reference to “they” was about Democrats, whom he falsely accused of being “angry radicals who want to impose absolute conformity by censuring speech, tearing down crosses and symbols of faith and banning religious believers from public life.”
Trump’s official schedule for Thursday, as provided by the White House, says: “THE PRESIDENT announces guidance on constitutional prayer in public schools.” The White House did not immediately respond to a query about what that guidance will include.
As I recently wrote in a post about the holidays and schools, students of all faiths are free to pray alone or in groups during the school day, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others. Nobody can compel students to participate in prayer, and courts have ruled that nobody should pray in front of a school assembly. But nobody can stop a student or teacher or custodian or principal or anybody else from praying.
As Charles C. Haynes, the vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center, wrote a few years ago: “Visit public schools anywhere in America today and you’re likely to see kids praying around the flagpole, sharing their faith with classmates, reading scriptures in free time, forming religious clubs, and in other ways bringing God with them through the schoolhouse door each day.”
In his speech Jan. 3, Trump referred to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union late last year against the Smith County School System in Tennessee. According to the lawsuit, the district is violating the separation of church and state. It says the district:
“routinely promoted and inculcated Christian religious beliefs by sponsoring religious activities and conveying religious messages to students at these two schools. School-sponsored prayer is common at athletic and other school events; religious iconography and messages adorn the walls of the schools; and teachers proselytize their Christian faith.”
In a response to the lawsuit, the district said there have been some religious expressions in school, such as a student-led prayer at a Veterans Day assembly, and that there exists a “prayer and period of silence” policy. But it denied any event or policy “promotes or encourages prayer.”
The district’s response says:
“Defendants admit that some coaches participate in prayer with students before and after various sporting events, and that a person unaffiliated with the school usually delivers a Christian prayer over the public-address system before Smith County High School home football games. Defendants deny that such prayer is ‘official.’ ”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit anti-hate organization, courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional for:
- students to lead or initiate prayer before school football games
- a school official to lead or participate in a team prayer
- a school official to ask a team member or other student to initiate a prayer before or after public school athletic activities
- a clergy member to give prayers before or after school events.
But “voluntary prayer presented and led by students without official permission or sanction may be constitutional,” the ADL said.
This is a video of Trump’s speech: