The Trump administration on Thursday announced it is updating federal guidance for prayer in public schools and other initiatives aimed at protecting religious freedom, which administration officials said are aimed at reducing discrimination against people and groups of faith.
The changes, announced on National Religious Freedom Day, include proposing new rules from nine federal agencies on social services programs, updating federal guidance on prayer in public schools and instructing federal agencies to ensure states do not condition grants of federal funds “in a manner that would disadvantage grant applicants based on their religious character,” according to the White House.
“This afternoon we’re proudly announcing historic steps to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools. … There’s nothing more important than that, I would say,” President Donald Trump said Thursday alongside administration officials, religious representatives, students and teacher advocates.
The updated guidance will require state departments of education to provide a clear process for people to report complaints that individuals were denied constitutionally protected prayer. It also requires those departments to report public charges of religious discrimination, such as a lawsuit, to the US Department of Education, and adds a section describing religious expression and the Equal Access Act.
Trump claimed that “there’s a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict and even prohibit religious expression.” He called the new guidance “the right to pray.”
He added, “While I’m President … we will not let anyone push God from the public square. We will uphold religious liberty for all.”
The Department of Education is proposing additional regulations and guidance, including a regulation laying out that “a public institution of higher education cannot deny a religious student group the same benefits, privileges and rights that other secular student groups have,” a senior administration official said.
The administration’s latest efforts were swiftly criticized Thursday by some nonprofit groups, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, argued that “(t)he educational rules break no ground, and pretty accurately summarize the state of the law with regard to school prayer and religious instruction, similar to the guidelines previously issued about this by both Presidents (Bill) Clinton and (George W.) Bush.” The foundation also said the administration missed “the chance to adequately warn schools about common First Amendment violations.”