The president launched into a diatribe against what he called “a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict and even prohibit religious expression” and said the steps his administration was taking “to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools” were “historic.” Actually, students and anybody else in a public school already have the right to pray in public schools, and his administration’s new guidance changes little from that of earlier administrations.
A Washington Post story explained the actions taken by the administration on Thursday, saying:
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 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. I proudly share President Trump’s commitment to religious freedom and the First Amendment.”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 school prayer. The department does not have similar reporting requirements for states when a school district is accused of other types of discrimination.
Here is the transcript of the announcement, as provided by the White House:
THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much. A couple of things happened today that are very exciting. The USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement] passed the Senate. It’s one of the biggest trade bills ever made.
And then, yesterday, as you know, China passed, and that’s something that is extraordinary. And it’s going to have tremendous, far-reaching effects, including our relationship, long term, with China, our farmers and manufacturers and bankers, and everybody. It’s jobs. It’s jobs like we’ve never seen before, and that’s going to be something very special. And USMCA today, which just passed by a very comfortable vote — a very high vote — we are very proud to have that.
So we’ve done two of the biggest trade deals. They are the two biggest trade deals in the world ever done. And we’re honored to have done them in a short period of time.
We are gathered in the Oval Office for the National Religious Freedom Day — something very important and very special, and special to me and the people that are gathered around me.
This afternoon, we’re proudly announcing historic steps to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools. So you have the right to pray. And that’s a very important and powerful right. There’s nothing more important than that, I would say.
We’re joined by the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos; Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen; and students and advocates from across America. And advocates they were. They’ve been calling and writing by the thousands. And you’re representing that large group of people.
In a sacred principle of our republic that government must never stand between the people and God. Yet, 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. You see it on the football field. You see it so many times where they’re stopped from praying. And we are doing something to stop that.
Tragically, there is a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict, and even prohibit religious expression. Something that, if you go back 10 years or 15 years or 20 years, it was unthought of that a thing like that could even happen — that anybody would even think of something like that happening.
That is why, today, my administration is issuing strong new guidance to protect religious liberty in our public schools. The right of students and teachers to freely exercise their faith will always be protected, including the right to pray.
So we call this the “Right to Pray.” Is that a good idea? Good? Right? You like that, right? (Laughter.)
Nine federal agencies are also proposing new rules to roll back discriminatory regulations. So we have rules to roll back discriminatory regulations on religious service organizations. And earlier this afternoon, my White House released a new memo to make sure federal funding is never used to violate the First Amendment — which is a very big deal.
With us today is Hannah Allen, a high school freshman from Texas. Hannah, would you tell us what happened at your school with respect to you and prayer? Hannah?
MS. ALLEN: Thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, darling. Right here.
MS. ALLEN: So, me and a group of students from our school wanted to pray for our former classmate’s brother who had got hurt in an accident.
After the prayer, our principal told us, “Don’t do that again.” So the next day, parents had called and complained. He told us that we could pray, but he said we had to hide in the gym or behind a curtain, or somewhere away from everyone else.
And I know that if this can happen in a small town in Texas, it can happen anywhere across America, and that’s not right. No one should feel ashamed of their faith, especially in school or anywhere.
THE PRESIDENT: Well —
MS. ALLEN: And —
THE PRESIDENT: So what ultimately happened? How was that resolved?
MS. ALLEN: So we got with First Liberty. They’ve been amazing. They supported us the whole way. And they sent the school a letter, and the school complied with the letter, and they changed the — yeah.
THE PRESIDENT: And now you’re able to do that?
MS. ALLEN: We are.
THE PRESIDENT: Good. Well, now it’s going to be much easier yet. Okay? All right? Thank you, darling. That was beautiful. Thank you very much.
We’re also joined by Marilyn Rhames, a former teacher and the founder of Teachers Who Pray. Marilyn, if you could, let us know — where is —
MS. RHAMES: I’m right here.
THE PRESIDENT: Good. Thank you very much. Maybe you give us a little bit about what happened?
MS. RHAMES: Yes. So, thank you. I’m Marilyn Rhames. I’m the founder and president of Teachers Who Pray. And I founded Teachers Who Pray because I, as a teacher, believe in the beauty of every child and the unlimited potential that resides within. However, the students that I was getting weren’t set up for success because they were so significantly behind grade level. And I taught in Chicago public schools for 14 years. And during that time, we were losing students every year to gun violence. And one year, it was like 30, 32 students getting killed.
And I was overwhelmed with the heaviness of the work, so I thought about quitting, and I decided not to. I was going to fight. And I was going to pray and uplift my spirit so that I can do the job that I knew God had called me to do.
So I began praying with other teachers in the building who were like-minded, and we really supported each other, built community, built more hope, built more joy in the work despite it being so difficult. And we grew. Like, right now, there’s over 150 chapters of Teachers Who Pray because teachers need that spiritual support and guidance.
And today, I believe it’s super important because there is a myth out there that what Teachers Who Pray does and other organizations do for teachers, spiritual wealth is not legal. And it absolutely is.
And I’m here to tell teachers that we need to pray for your faith. We need to pray. We need to buckle and just do what we have to do for our kids because they need us and they’re depending on us. And if we’re not strong, we can’t make them strong. So that’s why I’m here.
THE PRESIDENT: That was really beautifully said. Thank you very much. That was beautiful. Thanks, Marilyn.
So, while I’m president, which will be hopefully for five years — and, I don’t know, maybe we’ll work on, with the media, we’ll work on a major extension of that. Right? (Laughter.) But we will not let anyone push God from the public square. We will uphold religious liberty for all.
And I want to thank you all, and God bless you all for being here. It’s a great time in our country. We’re doing things that nobody thought was possible.
I’d like to ask, if I might, Secretary DeVos and Deputy Attorney General Rosen to say a few words about our actions, if you don’t mind. Please.
SECRETARY DEVOS: Thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Go ahead, Betsy. Please.
SECRETARY DEVOS: Thank you for your leadership, your courage, and your friendship to people of faith, especially our nation’s children. Too many misinterpret a separation of church and state as an invitation for government to separate people from their faith.
In reality, our Constitution doesn’t exist to protect us from religion; it exists to protect religion from government. The First Amendment affirms our free exercise of religion, and we don’t forfeit that first freedom to anyone or in any place, especially in public schools.
After all, it’s been noted that as long as there are final exams in schools, there will be always be prayer in schools. (Laughter.)
Thanks to your leadership, Mr. President, today we remind schools of the law with respect to religious expression — something that hasn’t been done in more than 15 years. And where there are violations, we now make clear that the law requires states to establish a clear process for students like Hannah and Michael —
MR. MCLEOD: William.
SECRETARY DEVOS: William — parents and teachers like Marilyn to report them.
It also notes that the law directs states to tell us about any and all complaints as well.
This administration and you is, and always will be, committed to ensuring all believers have the freedom to learn, to pursue our passions, to use our talents, and to live in accordance with the unique purpose that God has called us each to do.
If we embrace that freedom, our faith will be a light no darkness can overcome. Thank you again, Mr. President —
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
SECRETARY DEVOS: — for your leadership.
THE PRESIDENT: Beautiful. Thank you, Betsy, very much.
DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROSEN: Well, thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you for your leadership on this really critical issue. There are — the fundamental freedom that you’ve been supporting for Americans to practice their faith is so important and is so appreciated by millions and millions of Americans.
And at the Department of Justice, we remain firmly committed to enforcing Americans’ constitutional rights, including this one. So that’s part of why I’m very honored and privileged to be a part of today’s announcement on the new guidance document about prayer in school.
I think sometimes people don’t appreciate that there are many, many Americans who feel called to pray during the day, and our First Amendment to our Constitution protects that. And sometimes I think there’s a confusion about this issue as to whether it’s trying to force people to pray who don’t want to, but that’s not what this is about. This is about protecting the rights of those who do to have the liberty to do that on school grounds. And that is protected —
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROSEN: — by the First Amendment.
So today’s guidance reaffirms and clarifies and spells out for Americans what that freedom is with regards to prayer and religious expression. And I really think that the courage of people of faith, such as the folks we have here today, is really a reminder of how important our constitutional liberties are and of the great action that your administration is taking to ensure that they remain legally protected.
So again, Mr. President, I thank you —
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Jeff. Good job.
DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROSEN: — and the Secretary DeVos and the whole administration for the efforts to make this happen.
THE PRESIDENT: Very good job. Thank you very much, Jeff.
Paula, would you like to say something? Go ahead.
PASTOR WHITE: Yes, sir. It’s such an honor to stand here with you, President Trump, and with this amazing team. And the policy and everyone who had made this — this is a huge thing. So we said it is a constitutional right, a First Amendment right. And, President, you continue to be such a fighter for people’s freedoms, for their liberties. As you often say, “We worship God, not government.”
Perceived and perception has often been — people have been bullied, harassed, stopped from practicing their faith. You have so many people that have walked out here, very brave, with horrific stories of being persecuted because they simply wanted to pray. And prayers, we know, makes a huge difference. So thank you for standing for all —
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Paula.
PASTOR WHITE: — religious liberties.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s great. Thank you very much.
Would anybody like to say anything? Go ahead.
MR. MCLEOD: Can I tell my story?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, go ahead. (Laughter.) Go ahead.
MR. MCLEOD: So it all started when I walked in the classroom. I was — it was Ash Wednesday and I had my ashes on my forehead, and all the kids in the classroom was like, “Is that dirt on your forehead?” Because they don’t know, because they aren’t Catholic and they were all Mormon.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh.
MR. MCLEOD: So — because I was like — they’re — that was like — I was like the only Catholic in that school. So then the teacher came up and was like, “It’s unacceptable. Wipe it off.” And I told her four times, and she didn’t listen and she made me wipe it off in front of all the kids.
THE PRESIDENT: Wow.
MR. MCLEOD: That’s my story. So, thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it’s not going to be happening anymore. Okay?
MR. MCLEOD: Thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: All right?
MR. MCLEOD: I just don’t want anyone to feel like that.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s a beautiful — it’s a beautiful story. Well told, because it sets such a good plate out there for people. I mean, you hear a story like that, it’s such a shocking — Jeff, that’s a shocking story, right? You were the only Catholic in the school?
MR. MCLEOD: (Nods head.) Well, I think there’s one more.
THE PRESIDENT: But they didn’t have any idea. It was just — and the teacher did not treat you properly, right?
MR. MCLEOD: (Nods head.)
THE PRESIDENT: Okay. We’re changing that. Okay? Great job. That was beautiful.
Come here. Give me that hand.
Anybody over here? Anybody? Sure.
MR. WINDEBANK: Mr. President, thank you so much for the opportunity to be in the Oval Office. So much history has taken place here. It’s surreal. Thank you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Good.
MR. WINDEBANK: My name is Chase Windebank. I started a small group of students praying in high school during a free period. And by my senior year, it had grown to a community of 90 students. It was so encouraging. But later in senior year, the administration wound up banning us from praying during school hours — not even during lunch.
And so I remember thinking I didn’t want to file a lawsuit at all, but after many meetings unsuccessful with the administration, I wound up realizing it was the only way to secure future students’ rights to pray. And so thank you, sir, that now I get to have the opportunity to tell students to live out their faith in big and small ways —
THE PRESIDENT: That’s right. That’s right.
MR. WINDEBANK: — in the future. And you guys are making sure that the Founding Fathers are living on in our nation. So thank you, sir, very much.
THE PRESIDENT: Beautiful. Thank you very much. That’s very nice.
MR. WINDEBANK: Thank you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes?
MS. HIJAZ: I pray five times day. Oh, my name is Malak Hijaz. I pray five times a day and I have to pray at lunch. And I would bring the hijab to cover my hair, and kids would make fun of me, harass me and attack me. And I would tell the principal, and the principal actually blamed everything on me. At the end, me and my mom complained so many times, and I didn’t have a good education at the end. So, yeah, everything was blamed on me.
THE PRESIDENT: And we’re going to take care of that, right?
MS. HIJAZ: Yeah.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, darling.
MS. HIJAZ: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Beautiful. Thank you very much.
MS. HOBLIN: Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, we’ll I want to thank everybody for being here.
Did I hear somebody else? Yes, please. Go ahead.
MS. HOBLIN: Hi, my name is Ariana Hoblin. I’m a high school student in South Florida. And in my middle school, I was the only Jewish person and I was very open with my religion. I would announce when I would have Shabbat plans, which is a day of prayer and rest.
And when we started our Holocaust unit, it ended with everybody being nice to me because I spoke out about it. And I wanted to inform people and I wanted to help people learn. And the students started to write swastikas on my belongings, on my arms. I was pushed and shoved in the hallway.
They even went so far as to take my face and put it on Anne Frank’s body. And it was sent around to three different schools. And I was terrified to say I was Jewish. And that should never be in anyone’s mind. Anyone in school should be able to say, “I am what whatever religion I am. And I practice this and I believe this.”
And it’s been three or four years since middle school. I’m a junior in high school and I have continuously fought for anyone to have the right to exercise their constitutional rights in school.
And I just want to thank you so much for everything you’ve done, and for Israel and for everything that you’ve truly done for all of us.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much. So beautiful. Thank you. It’s working out better now? Or is it sort of similar?
MS. HOBLIN: Yes, my high school is extremely supportive of me. I go to Wellington High School.
THE PRESIDENT: Good.
MS. HOBLIN: And they’ve helped me be a leader in the Jewish community now.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, this is going to help, too.
MS. HOBLIN: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
MR. KENNEDY: Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, please.
MR. KENNEDY: Coach Kennedy.
THE PRESIDENT: Coach.
MR. KENNEDY: We talked a few times. I coach up in Bremerton High School —
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
MR. KENNEDY: — in Bremerton, Washington. And I was fired for praying after football games.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
MR. KENNEDY: And it’s just so nice to have First Liberty representing me and having a president that has the guts to stand up for us. So, I appreciate you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Coach.
MR. KENNEDY: Oorah. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Good coach, too. He’s a good coach.
MR. KENNEDY: Thank you.
MS. CHANEY: Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all very much.
MS. CHANEY: My name is Emily Chaney. I’m a sophomore at East Ridge High School. And I started a prayer locker at my school, and it really helped a lot of people who had different prayer requests. Just —
THE PRESIDENT: Where do you come from with that beautiful accent? (Laughter.) I love the accent. Where do you come from?
MS. CHANEY: Pikeville, Kentucky.
THE PRESIDENT: Kentucky. Oh, we love Kentucky. (Laughter.) We love Kentucky.
MS. CHANEY: I started a prayer locker at my school and it helped a lot of kids who have many different prayer requests just to let them know that someone was there for them and cared for them. And Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to our board of education that the prayer lockers needed to be taken down.
And whenever my teacher told me my school was notified that I had to take my prayer locker down, I was heartbroke, because I had like 10 prayer requests a day. And that was — I just feel like it really helped move in our community, in our schools. And I just — I’m just so thankful for you and all you’ve done for our country.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
MS. CHANEY: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Say hello to everybody in Kentucky for me, okay? (Laughter.) And beyond. And beyond Kentucky.
MS. CHANEY: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay? We’re all set?
DR. RICHBURG: Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, please.
DR. RICHBURG: I come from a heritage and from a faith persuasion that every day of my life, from childhood to now, was grounded in faith. And it is my belief that, had we not had that freedom to exercise that faith, we would not be where we are today.
And so, for that reason, we look at this moment as epic, and an opportunity to return to where we have one time been — the opportunity to freely express ourselves and to share with others, who might feel the same way, how far we’ve been brought and how far we must come through faith.
THE PRESIDENT: Beautiful. So nicely stated. Thank you very much.
You were going to say something?
MR. BUEHRER: Yes, Mr. President, I wanted to thank you. Eric Buehrer, with Gateways to Better Education. And these guidelines haven’t been updated and reissued since 2003.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
MR. BUEHRER: And when we saw that and contacted the Department of Education, we were so gratified of the response from Secretary DeVos and others on your staff that said, “Yes, we need to address this and update these.” Other administrations should have done it every two years, and it hadn’t been done.
So thank you so much for stepping up and really supporting religious freedom in schools.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we covered a lot of territory in here, as you know, because, you’re right, it’s been many years since they were updated.
MR. BUEHRER: It has.
THE PRESIDENT: So I think it’s very important.
Well, thank you all very much. Go ahead.
Q: Yeah, Mr. President, tell me a little bit about what many folks, especially folks of faith, view as a cultural war out there. Prayer, a lot of things going on in society — what are your views on this cultural war that we hear so much about?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it is a cultural war, and you have two sides. And you have a side that believes so strongly in prayer, and they’re being restricted, and it’s getting worse and worse. And I think we’ve made a big impact. And we’re loosening up a lot, and I want to loosen it up totally.
But you do have — you have things happening today that 10 or 15 years ago would have been unthinkable, what’s happening. Taking the word “God” down, taking the word “Christmas” out. You know, I think we’ve turned that one around very good. I think we’ve turned both of them around very good. But we’re not going to let it happen. We’re never going to let that happen. And we’re fighting it hard. You know better than anybody, we’re fighting it very hard. And we’re opening it up, and we’re opening up again.
So stories like you hear — but so many other stories — hopefully, in the future, you’re not going to be hearing too much about that. Okay? Thank you. Good question.
[There is more, but it is not about this subject.]