The Trump administration last month issued guidelines dealing with religion, public education and students’ rights. (See the story on page 4 of this issue.)
Prior to the release of the guidelines, Trump told an evangelical audience in Miami that something big was in the works. It was more of his bluster. Formal, school-sponsored prayer in public schools was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court more than 55 years ago. Despite what he may believe, Trump doesn’t have the power to change that.
The guidelines, issued jointly by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, draw heavily on previous documents issued during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Americans United had some input into the Clinton guidelines and supported them. The Bush guidelines were more problematic and contained some material we believed was not accurate.
Similarly, the new Trump guidelines push the envelope. They imply, for example, that certain types of “student-initiated” prayer are legal at public school events when that is far from clear.
The federal government has a responsibility to convey accurate information to the men and women who work in our public schools, as well as the children who attend them and their families. Furthermore, it would be helpful if this administration looked at the law governing religion in public schools and celebrated it instead of denigrating it.
There is much to celebrate. Public education serves millions of children of varying faiths as well as those who practice no faith. All must be made to feel welcome. While religion can be discussed objectively as an academic subject, it’s not the role of public education to meddle in the private religious lives of students or to persuade young people to discard a certain faith and adopt another. Decisions about which faith, if any, a child follows belong to his or her family.
This administration – and indeed government officials at all levels – should stop looking for ways to get around the Supreme Court’s decisions on religion and public schools and instead follow them. These decisions have been in place for nearly six decades and have proven their worth.
Now that the Trump school prayer guidelines have been issued, Americans United will be keeping a close eye on things. Any violation of a student’s right of conscience will meet with a swift response.