(RNS) — When President Donald Trump leaked, at a rally for evangelical supporters in Florida on Jan. 3, that his administration would issue guidance about prayer in public schools, he started a mini-firestorm, and not just among the fired-up crowd.
When the guidance was released on Thursday (Jan. 16), however, it turned out to be hardly worth the excitement. According to long-settled legal and constitutional protections for religious expression in the public schools, public school students are free to pray, wear religious clothing and accessories and talk about their beliefs. Religious groups can meet on school grounds, and teachers can teach about religion as an academic subject. Religious liberty, in short, is already a treasured value in our nation’s public schools.
So why are the president and White House staffers making inflammatory and misleading statements, claiming our constitutional rights are under attack?
It could be that the administration simply wanted to remind public schools of their constitutional duties.
Tyler is being polite. She knows why Trump felt the need to affirm an already existing Supreme Court decision that allows students to pray in school. He wanted to use the spiritual discipline of prayer to score political points with his conservative evangelical base. Trump is not savvy enough to think of this on his own. One of his so-called evangelical advisers probably told him to do this.
So let’s get the facts on the proverbial table:
- The Supreme Court made mandatory prayer in schools unconstitutional in the 1962 Engle v. Vitale case. Mandatory prayer is still unconstitutional. Nothing Trump did on Thursday changed this. I have now heard from several Trump voters who think that Trump somehow overturned Engle v. Vitale with his remarks. He did not. Not even the Trump Administration is saying this. But I am sure that Trump wouldn’t mind it if some uneducated evangelicals believed that he restored mandatory school prayer.
- In 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed in Sante Fe ISD v. Doe that “The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment prevent the government from making any law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. By no means do these commands impose a prohibition of all religious activity in our public schools. See, e. g., Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 508 U. S. 384, 395 (1993); Board of Ed. of Westside Community Schools (Dist. 66) v. Mergens, 496 U. S. 226 (1990); Wallace, 472 U. S., at 59. Indeed, the common purpose of the Religion Clauses “is to secure religious liberty.” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421, 430 (1962). Thus, nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday.”
- In other words, Trump’s so-called “guidance” merely affirmed what was already in place.
- Have there been cases when school districts, acting in bad faith, have failed to uphold this constitutional right to pray in schools? Of course. But as Binghamton University historian Adam Laats pointed out yesterday, these cases are the exception rather than the rule.
- In my chapter on evangelical fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I wrote, “Donald Trump himself, during his 2016 campaign, [claimed] that crime was rising when it was actually falling. He attempted to portray refugees and undocumented immigrants as threats to the American public even though the chances that an American will die at the hands of a refugee terrorist is about one in 3.6. million; the chance of being murdered by an undocumented immigrant is one in 10.9 million per year. One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch on fire. Yet Trump managed to convince Americans that immigrants are “imminent threats” to their safety.” I would love to get an idea of how many violations of Sante Fe ISD v. Doe occur each year and compare that number to the number of voluntary public school prayer groups that function everyday in full accordance with Sante Fe ISD v. Doe.
Here is Tyler again:
…some comments officials made before and in their announcement of the guidance vastly overstated the supposed problem and echoed the claims of Christian nationalism, a dangerous movement that harms both Christianity and the United States by implying that to be a good American, one must be Christian.
Christian nationalists often point to two Supreme Court cases from the 1960s, Engel v. Vitale and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, to claim that the government “banned school prayer” or “took God out of the schools.” These are harmful misrepresentations. These cases didn’t ban the free exercise of Christian worship. They banned mandatory Bible readings and prayers written by the government. It should not be controversial to oppose government-dictated religious practice.
Instead of enforcing government-mandated religion, these Supreme Court cases ensured that public school students are free to exercise their constitutionally protected religious beliefs and affirmed the proper way to handle religion in public schools.
And it’s worked: For decades, public schools across the nation have modeled how religiously diverse populations can build relationships of trust and care, respecting the unique role that religion plays in people’s lives. Like our neighbors of all faiths, we are empowered by the First Amendment to live our beliefs in the public square, which includes the public school.
Read the rest here.