Jan 16, 2020

President Trump chose National Religious Freedom Day – when we commemorate the foundation of church-state separation in America – to chip away at religious freedom protections for America’s public school students and some of our country’s most vulnerable people.

Today, the Department of Education issued new federal guidance that opens the floodgates for coercive prayer and religious activity in our public schools. Additionally, the Trump administration proposed to roll back regulations for faith-based service providers, putting people at risk by undermining critical religious freedom and civil rights protections.

“President Trump isn’t trying to protect religious freedom; he’s pandering to religious extremists who want to inject a narrow set of religious beliefs into our public schools and taxpayer-funded services,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “On Religious Freedom Day of all days, we must make clear that religious freedom demands that everyone be free to practice their faith, or no faith at all, but only so long as they don’t harm others. Religious freedom is not a license to grant unparalleled religious privilege.”

School Prayer Guidance:

Issued by Trump, Attorney General William Barr and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the guidance invites religious coercion in our public schools. This will lead to bullying, harassment and ostracism that will predominantly impact LGBTQ students and religious minorities – students already at risk from the rise in hate crimes and discrimination in our country. Already, about 75 percent of the religious freedom violations reported to Americans United occur in our public schools. 

“We couldn’t agree more with President Trump that students should never be discriminated against for voluntarily praying at school – that is why AU fights every day to protect the First Amendment, which already guarantees them that right,” Laser said. “What the president has failed to do, however, is protect those students who do not wish to participate in religious activity. We have no doubt that the president’s use of his microphone to invite prayer in public schools opens the door to more constitutional violations such as students feeling pressured to bow their heads at school events or participate in team baptisms. Anyone who truly values religious freedom knows we must protect everyone’s right to pray, or not pray, as they choose, free from government intrusion.”

Specifically, the guidelines:

  • Encourage students to speak “persuasively” about religion to their classmates, opening the door to proselytism and harassment.
  • Encourage students to pray at school events, including graduations, sporting events and student assemblies.
  • Invite public school teachers to participate in religious activities with impressionable students.
  • Invite discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs and against LGBTQ children by school-sponsored religious student groups.
  • Create a process for intrusion into local school districts by the federal government regarding school prayer and religious activity in order to override their decisions.

For a detailed look into school prayer, read this report by Americans United, an organization founded nearly 75 years ago to protect religious freedom in public schools. “Praying for Common Sense: The Truth About Religion in Public Schools” outlines the constitutional violations set out in today’s guidelines, a history of federal law and Supreme Court precedent on religion in schools, and real-life violations from schools across the country.

Regulations for Faith-Based Organizations:

The administration’s proposed rules would apply to thousands of organizations receiving billions of taxpayer dollars to provide services such as foster care, food assistance for children and the elderly, preschool, housing assistance, disaster recovery aid, mental health and substance abuse treatment, help for survivors of domestic violence, vocational training and veterans services.

“These rules undermine the civil rights and religious freedom of millions of our most vulnerable Americans who rely on social services – with particularly dire consequences for LGBTQ people and religious minorities,” Laser said. “No one should be denied the help they need because their government-funded provider condemns who they are, who they love, or what they believe.”

The rules would:

  • Strip away existing protections that require faith-based providers to offer an alternate provider if people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable because of the religious affiliation, activities or messages of a faith-based organization.
    • This puts people’s chances of getting help at risk because they may feel pressured to participate in religious activity or be surrounded by religious symbols that differ from their views. If people have to find their own alternative provider, it is one more hurdle they have to face to getting services.
    • For example: A gay homeless teen might forgo getting services like housing, food, medical care, group and family counseling, or afterschool care if they know the religion of the faith-based provider condemns them for being gay.
  • Eliminate the requirement that people seeking services be informed of their religious freedom rights – that they can’t be required to pray or participate in religious activities, that they are entitled to be offered an alternate provider and that they can file a complaint if their rights are violated.
  • Eliminate the safeguard that ensures people who use vouchers to get services have at least one secular alternative to faith-based providers to choose from. As a result, taxpayer funds will be used to pay for religious programming without providing people an alternative. This could have the biggest impact on those living in rural areas where another provider could be miles away or nonexistent.
  • Put the interests of taxpayer-funded religious organizations ahead of the interests of people who seek government services at every turn. The regulations unduly emphasize the religious exercise, mission and independence of faith-based providers and invite them to seek religious exemptions. In doing so, the rules are paving the way for providers to refuse to provide key services and opening the door to discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs.

By emphasizing the religious character, mission and independence of faith-based providers, the rules are paving the way for providers to require people to participate in religious activities when seeking taxpayer-funded services.

The regulations affect eight federal departments and agencies: The U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, Labor, Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Similar regulations are expected to be issued soon by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.