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Trump administration moves to protect prayer in public schools and federal funds for religious organizations

The White House announced it is proposing to ease restrictions on religious groups that provide social services

President Trump met with students and religious advocates on Jan. 16 to announce new protections for religious prayer and worship in public schools. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Trump administration is moving to strengthen protections for students who want to pray or worship in public schools and proposing changes to make it easier for religious groups that provide social services to access federal funds, a development that comes as the president seeks to shore up support among evangelicals.

Nine federal agencies, including the Education Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department, are advancing rules that would reduce requirements for those religious organizations. The rules would lift an Obama-era executive order that compelled religious organizations to tell the people they serve that they can receive the same service from a secular provider.

In the Oval Office on Thursday, President Trump gathered with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, televangelist Paula White and students who said they had faced religious discrimination in public schools. Trump said his administration was engaged in a “cultural war” to defend school prayer from “the far left."

“In public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith or following their religious beliefs. It is totally unacceptable,” Trump said. “Tragically, there is a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict and even prohibit religious expression.”

Some experts said many of Thursday’s developments retread old ground and may have little impact. Courts have made clear that students have the right to pray in school — as long as the prayers are not led by teachers, coaches or principals and do not disrupt learning.

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 access to public facilities just as secular groups do.

The guidance also clarifies that teachers, administrators and coaches are not permitted to lead school prayers or devotional readings of the Bible, “nor may school officials use their authority to attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.”

“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.”

The guidance, which largely updates guidelines issued by the Bush administration in 2003, will also require school districts to certify they do not have regulations that conflict with students’ right to pray at school and instructs states to notify the Education Department if a complaint arises against a school district over prayer. The department does not have similar reporting requirements for states when a school district is accused of other types of discrimination.

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Under current regulations, faith-based providers — such as health-care entities, child welfare organizations and educational nonprofits — need to give beneficiaries notice of the providers’ religious character and the right to get services elsewhere. The providers also have to make reasonable efforts to refer beneficiaries to another provider if the person receiving services is uncomfortable. The government relies on businesses and nonprofits — many of them faith-based — to provide a range of social services, including resettlement of refugees, organizing housing workshops, facilitating adoptions and providing court-ordered drug treatment.

The Trump administration announced rules to end the notification requirement. Administration officials said that it was unfair to force religious providers to give those notices when secular providers faced no such requirements and that the requirement unfairly cast religious organizations as suspect.

Representative of several agencies -- including the Justice, Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments -- did not return calls seeking comment.

Civil rights groups said the new regulations will dismantle protections put in place by President Barack Obama to balance the rights of faith-based providers with those of LGBTQ individuals and other groups that have historically faced discrimination. Critics also accused the administration of using the flag of “religious freedom” to give more taxpayer dollars to Christian groups.

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Camilla B. Taylor, an attorney with the LGBTQ civil rights group Lambda Legal, said the changes would affect huge swaths of government contracts. She said when people think of religious groups and social services, they “think a neighborhood soup kitchen in a basement.”

“But we are talking about government grants to the tune of millions and millions of dollars. And increasingly, they are excluding members of the public from receiving services based on who they are,” Taylor said.

Some experts criticized the administration for distorting reality, saying there is scant evidence that students who want to pray are being prevented from doing so.

Charles C. Haynes, a senior fellow at the Freedom Forum who has advised hundreds of school districts on matters related to religion, said the guidance fed a false narrative that prayer in public schools is under attack. He said the vast majority of schools respect a student’s right to prayer.

“It’s overdrawn and somewhat political to keep this so-called school prayer fight going,” Haynes said. “This is in some ways a manufactured crisis because it plays well politically to say, ‘We want God back in schools.’ ”

The Rev. Stan J. Sloan, chief executive of Family Equality, which supports same-sex families, said, “Once again, the Trump administration is putting the personal beliefs of taxpayer-funded service providers above the needs of vulnerable children, families and people they serve."

“People in need should never have to choose between their own identity or religion and accessing services they need and have paid for with their tax dollars,” Sloan said.

The president and chief executive of the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm in Texas that specializes in religious freedom ­cases, praised the administration’s move.

“The religious freedom of America’s public school students and teachers does not stop at the schoolhouse gate. Today’s guidelines affirm that promise,” First Liberty president Kelly Shackelford said in a statement. “We are also grateful to the President for his actions today protecting the rights of Americans by ending religious discrimination by state and federal agencies.”

In the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump invited students who said they faced religious discrimination to share their stories. One Catholic student said a teacher forced him to wipe ashes from his forehead on Ash Wednesday. A Muslim girl said she faced bullying for wearing a head covering at school. Another girl, a Christian, said her school in Texas told her she could pray only in private. Attorneys sent a letter to the school, and administrators swiftly reversed course.

The move comes as Trump seeks to bolster his backing among conservative evangelical Christians in the lead-up to his reelection bid. Two weeks ago, he held an event at El Rey Jesús church in Miami to announce the formation of a coalition, Evangelicals for Trump. There, he also announced his administration’s intent to “safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools.”

Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could expand how religious schools access taxpayer funds.

The case emerged in Montana, where the state constitution prohibits public dollars from going to religious schools. When the state created a tax-credit scholarship fund, a voucherlike program that allows taxpayers to receive dollar-for-dollar tax deductions for their donations, it barred beneficiaries from using the funding to send their children to religious schools. A family sued, setting the stage for a case that could determine how states can regulate voucher programs.

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.