Trump Moves to Protect Religious Freedom In Schools

Today President Trump signed a “guidance” issued by the Department of Education on “Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” It updates the last such guidance, which was issued in 2003. The president promoted the event, coinciding with National Religious Freedom Day, as a step toward freedom of religion.

It is a sign of the times that you have to do a fair amount of Googling to get past the usual spin from media sources and find the actual guidance document. Almost all media commentary focuses on the political ramifications of “prayer in school,” rather than the content of the guidance.

This is a big topic, beyond the scope of a single post, but the White House’s summary of the guidance is at least a start. I would add a few observations:

1) One always wonders whether such documents have teeth. This one provides:

[A]s a condition of receiving ESEA funds, an LEA must certify in writing to its SEA that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as detailed in this updated guidance.

In my view, there is no good reason why the federal government should be sending money to local school districts. Still, this presumably means that some kind of enforcement might follow, at least until the next Democratic president revokes the guidance.

2) The complaint I have heard many times, here in Minnesota, is that Muslim students receive favored treatment compared with Christian and Jewish students. In many instances, they are dismissed from class in order to pray, special prayer rooms are set up along with foot-washing stations, and so on. Today’s guidance addresses all religions equally, but does not specifically say (as far as I can see) that religions must be treated equally by the public schools. I hope I am missing something here, and perhaps, by affirming the general right of religious expression in the public school sphere, the guidance will at least imply equality among religions.

3) The main thrust of the guidance is to say that, while public schools cannot endorse or promote any particular religion, or religion in general, they also cannot discriminate against religious expression or religious groups in comparison with how they treat secular expression or secular school groups. I am so old that I can remember when such an injunction would have been unnecessary. Now, it apparently is considered radical by most “mainstream” news outlets, like, say, NPR: “Trump Defends School Prayer. Critics Say He’s Got It All Wrong.” That is what we taxpayers are sponsoring, but somehow, I can’t remember ever voting for such principles.

The war over religious freedom has a long way to go, but today the Trump administration took at least a modest step forward. It is perhaps symptomatic of the craziness of modern liberalism that it is left to a figure like Donald Trump, who certainly never set out to be a hero of religious observance, to erect a firewall against the Left’s implacable hostility toward the Christian and Jewish faiths.

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