Yesterday was Religious Freedom Day, so naturally, the Trump administration celebrated by trashing that very principle.
The administration unleashed a one-two punch against the First Amendment. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General William Barr issued a guidance that allegedly provides advice about religious activity in public schools, and eight federal agencies released proposed rules that roll back religious freedom protections for people who get government-funded social services.
The school prayer guidelines look fairly innocuous on the surface, but when you go a little deeper, you see that they promote prayer at every turn and imply that certain types of supposedly “student-led” prayer can be woven into school-sponsored events, a dubious proposition to say the least.
More alarmingly, the guidelines require states to collect and investigate reports of alleged violations of the right to engage in religious activities from public school students and staff. States must forward all of these to federal officials – even the ones that have no merit. Trump’s increasingly theocratic Justice Department will undoubtedly use these stories to harass public schools that are upholding the separation of church and state all over the nation.
The proposed faith-based rules are equally troubling. If these rules are adopted, people in need will find important protections simply swept away. There will no longer be a requirement that vulnerable people have the right to ask for an alternative provider if they feel unwelcome or uncomfortable getting services at a faith-based provider. This puts people’s chances of getting help at risk because they may feel pressured to participate in religious activity.
The proposed rules also pave the way for discrimination. The harms will fall most heavily on religious minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.
This administration seems to believe that religious freedom can’t prosper unless someone’s rights are being violated. That isn’t just false, it’s offensive to the very spirit and promise of the First Amendment. The Trump administration sticks that grotesque notion in the nation’s face repeatedly. Pushing it away is not enough; we must explain to everyone why it’s counter to our nation’s most powerful ideals.
Religious freedom does not foster oppression and discrimination – quite the opposite, it rebukes those things. It is about protecting an individual’s rights, not allowing someone else to trash them in the name of faith.
That the administration would issue these guidelines and regulations on Religious Freedom Day – an event that marks the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s pioneering Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom – only shows how much Trump, Barr, DeVos, et al hold that principle in contempt.
There’s a remedy: Fight back, dispel the lies and expose these misguided measures for the reckless, freedom-squelching schemes that they are.
Americans United intends to do just that. We’d love to have your help.
P.S. Yesterday afternoon, Trump held an event to herald the release of the prayer guidelines. Among the speakers was a high school student from Pike County, Ky., who complained that Americans United had forced her school to shut down a “prayer locker” after learning that public school staff had helped create it. We did do that – because it’s not legal for staff to promote religious activities for students. And needless to say, the guidelines Trump has issued would not have made one whit of difference because they can’t change the Constitution.
Photo: Screenshot of White House event from C-SPAN