Let’s be perfectly clear. America’s Constitution, specifically the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights, gives every American a right to “free exercise of religion” and “freedom of assembly,” as well as the opportunity to exercise both rights simultaneously – including at a public school.
While no one is compelled to worship, public schools cannot foreclose the right to prayer, individually or collectively. They cannot legally intimidate or intimate that one’s religious faith – including Christianity – is unwelcome. They cannot disparage, denigrate, or disallow student’s or teacher’s Christian views.
Wealthy organizations, including those promoting atheism, are now aggressively pressing schools and districts. One way they do this is through lawsuits, knowing public schools and districts do not have deep resources to defend the constitutional rights of students and teachers. The rash of suits is growing. That may be one reason President Trump has stepped in.
On January 16th, the President held a White House ceremony announcing the Administration’s commitment to preserving, protecting, and defending the right to freely worship, assemble and assemble to worship – including in public schools. In short, he stood up for the Constitution.
Specifics are riveting, reassuring, and a change from the Obama years, as well as from what one might expect from a Warren, Sanders, or Biden White House. In short, Trump sponsored an event, “safeguarding the right to religious freedom for students and organizations.”
As the President explained, “our founders understood that no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions.” That conviction cuts both ways: A moral society permits religious freedom, and broad exercise of religious freedom reinforces the moral order on which a just society depends. The President gets it.
In pursuit of that guarantee, the President stood up for every “student’s constitutionally protected right to pray in school,” and updated federal regulatory guidance protecting “prayer and religious expression in public schools.” That has not been done for 17 years.
The updated guidance encourages students and teachers “to file a complaint if they are denied the ability to participate in protected religious expression.” The new guidance links constitutional compliance – allowing “free exercise” – to the school’s and district’s receipt of federal funding. By doing this, the constitutional guarantee is made real and irrefutable.
Local schools “must confirm that their policies do not prevent or interfere with … constitutionally protected rights.” The new rules clarify that “students can read texts or pray during recess and other non-instructional periods,” as well as “organize prayer groups, and express their religious beliefs in assignments.” So, to be clear, separation of church and state does not mean an individual must leave their faith at the schoolhouse door.
How ironic that a President of the United States must restate this freedom so that educators, administrators, lawyers, and atheist antagonists understand its seriousness. How ironic that we must be reminded of the right – in a land settled by those who escaped religious persecution.
The President went further. He reminded anti-religious, agnostic, and poorly informed detractors of religion the jig is up. Trump is preparing to issue nine rules “to protect religious organizations” from “unfair and unequal treatment by the Federal Government.”
Thus, the rules will “eliminate burdensome Obama-era requirements that unfairly imposed unique regulatory burdens only on religious organizations.” In addition, OMB will issue revised grant-making practices, to assure state recipients “comply with the First Amendment.”
The simple goal is the restoration of an “even playing field” for those of faith, and the Trump Administration seems determined to make it so. They are resolved to end anti-religious intimidation of local educational institutions, both from outside and from within.
As many know, these measures build on prior executive orders assuring free speech on college campuses, freedom of worship, and assurances of free exercise of religion and association.
They also add to this President’s “Faith and Opportunity” initiative, making clear the Administration – in their own words – “continues to stand up for religious liberty in the courts.” In this vein, they have also reversed Obama-era policies blocking disaster relief to religious organizations, and consistently give voice to freedom of worship around the globe.
The British philosopher Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism, gave voice to the notion that “all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” The principle is timeless. Its application is timely. It applies to national and state leaders, and to each of us. Good news is in short supply, but the White House gave us some. At a time when many disparage, diminish, demean, and displace faith, this President is having none of it. To that, I say, amen!