On the day that Washington was riveted by the testimony on Capitol Hill of former FBI director James Comey, President Trump made a speech to a group of religious conservatives during which raised the issue of religion and schools. Here is what he said on June 8, according to a White House transcript:
So we want our pastors speaking out. We want their voices in our public discourse. And we want our children to know the blessings of God. (Applause.) Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide, open, beautiful arms. (Applause.) Faith inspires us to be better, to be stronger, to be more caring and giving, and more determined to act in selfless and courageous defense of what is good and what is right. It is time to put a stop to the attacks on religion. (Applause.) Thank you.
It’s no surprise that Trump would say this to the Faith and Freedom Coalition; 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted in the November 2016 selected supported him, and polls show that most of them approve the job he is doing as president.
But a First Amendment scholar has some issues with what Trump said. The following is the reaction from Charles Haynes, the vice president of the Newseum Institute in Washington D.C. and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute:
I have no problems with the part where the president calls on schools to “welcome faith and religion” — only, of course, if he means that they welcome religion throughout the First Amendment door. If Trump is saying that public schools should treat students of all faiths with fairness and respect, then he is only re-stating what the law requires under the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, however, the president frames his remarks in culture-war language about schools being places that “drive out faith” and ends his remarks with a call to “put a stop to attacks on religion.” This is a false narrative about most public schools today, a narrative that stirs anger by reinforcing culture-war myths about public schools as places hostile to religion.
I very much doubt that President Trump has visited very many public schools in recent years (if he ever has), so he may not be aware that religion has returned to public schools in significant ways in the last few decades. True, there are some schools — particularly in the South — that still promote one religion over others in violation of the First Amendment. And there are other schools that continue to deny religious liberty rights of students through a misunderstanding and misapplication of the First Amendment.
In my experience, however, many, if not most, public schools now have more student religious expression and more teaching about religion than at any time in at least 100 years. If Trump actually visited public schools, he would find hundreds of student religious clubs, he would see evangelical students praying around the flagpole, Muslim students performing midday prayers in a unoccupied room, kids handing out religious literature, sharing their faith with classmate and more. He could also visit social studies classrooms and hear teachers teaching about religion in history and society. Not all of these schools get religion right — but they are moving in the right direction to fulfill the promise of the First Amendment.
By perpetuating culture-war myths about public schools, Trump hurts the very cause he claims he wants to promote: Public schools that welcome people of faith and take religion seriously in the curriculum.