Putting Prayer Back in Schools
"We honor the foundational link between freedom and faith in our country," Trump says.
On January 15, known as National Religious Freedom Day, President Donald Trump announced that his administration would update federal guidance on prayer in public schools. “On Religious Freedom Day, we honor the foundational link between freedom and faith in our country and reaffirm our commitment to safeguarding the religious liberty of all Americans,” he stated.
Such reaffirmation is a welcome sign. Three Supreme Court decisions — Engel v. Vitale (1962), Murray v. Curlett (1963), and Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963) — fundamentally changed the way the First Amendment’s religious protections had been previously understood. In short, a Supreme Court that leaned decidedly left during the 1960s appeared more determined to endorse freedom from religion than freedom of religion.
In Engel, the Court ruled 6-1 that a prayer written by New York state’s Board of Regents and said before classes each day was “wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause,” according to Justice Hugo Black writing for the majority.
In Abington Township, which also involved the Murray ruling, the Court determined 8–1 that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was also unconstitutional. “The reading of the verses, even without comment, possesses a devotional and religious character and constitutes in effect a religious observance,” the Court insisted. Moreover, the Court also asserted the fact that “some pupils, or theoretically all pupils, might be excused from attendance at the exercises does not mitigate the obligatory nature of the ceremony.”
That the Board of Regents prayer was voluntary and that a religious observance with attendance of zero could still be construed as obligatory is indicative of a Court likely influenced by the tenor of the times. The American Left still reveres the social revolution of the ‘60s, and while there were welcome advances in personal freedom and proper challenges to the racial status quo, the rebellion against traditional views of sex and the wholesale advancement of Secular Humanism gave us a society in which sex became exponentially more hedonistic, morality became “relative,” and the societal bedrocks of marriage and the nuclear family began unraveling.
Ironically, in Torcaso v. Watkins, SCOTUS referred to Secular Humanism as a religion “which [does] not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God.” Justice Black stated, “We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person 'to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’ Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against nonbelievers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”
What about the other way around? Justice Potter Stewart, the lone dissenting vote in Abington Township, had a prescient take on exactly that. He asserted that the removal of prayer from schools “led not to true neutrality with respect to religion, but to the establishment of a religion of secularism.”
Was Stewart right? Over the ensuing decades, several states have passed laws either permanently enjoining parental notification, no law at all, or judicial bypass of parents with regard to a minor getting an abortion. If there is another surgical procedure that can be administered to a child absent parent notification, much less permission, one is hard-pressed to know what it is.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In American schools today, a fear-based global-warming agenda is disseminated with impunity, and math is taught from a “social justice” perspective. A radical leftist teacher-training program known as “Deep Equity” addresses the “dynamics of privilege and power [that] must be confronted to impact real change,” and indoctrination exemplified by a “privilege scorecard” given to students at at Saratoga Springs High School has become routine. Furthermore, several schools teach the transgender agenda to children beginning in kindergarten, and many of the states in which that agenda is disseminated have no opt-out clause.
Thus, in stark contrast to the Supreme Court’s take on religion in schools, nothing is voluntary, the attendance will never be zero, and the ongoing dissemination of Secular Humanism, a.k.a. progressive ideology, in America’s classrooms leaves little doubt that Stewart was right on the money.
The Trump administration has released updated guidance on religious prayer in public elementary and secondary schools that will reaffirm the right that students are allowed to pray alone or in groups. Nine federal agencies, including the Justice Department, Health and Human Services, and the Department Education, will be involved in making the changes.
The original guidance on school prayer was issued in 2003. And while this order is similar, it establishes a state-mandated filing process for complaints against local schools and school districts. It requires those states to provide the federal government with an annual list of local public schools and districts with “a policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer.” States must also report local schools that fail to certify they don’t have unconstitutional prayer policies.
Trump pulled no punches with regard to the motivation behind the change. “You have things happening today that 10 or 15 years ago would have been unthinkable,” he stated in response to a question about his views on the culture wars. “Taking the word God down, taking the word Christmas out. I think we’ve turned that one around very good. I think we’ve turned both of them around very good.”
The order itself is equally straightforward. It explains that “teachers and other public school officials, acting in their official capacities, may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities,” while making it clear that “students and teachers do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Unsurprisingly, there was blowback from the usual precincts. “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,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Nonsense. What they do is provide students with something leftists fear the most: a counter-argument that cannot be silenced by judicial fiat. If leftists were truly convinced they own the franchise on “enlightened” thinking, they would welcome a robust debate between themselves and people of faith.
That they don’t speaks volumes.
Moreover, they have more to worry about. SCOTUS will soon rule on a case determining whether state laws excluding religious organizations from government funding available to others is constitutional. If not, school choice would also include funding for religious schools that many American prefer, especially when the alternative choice is a union-centric public school system with a 50-year track record of failure.
“If we win this case, it will be the U.S. Supreme Court once again saying that school choice is fully constitutional and it’s a good thing and it’s something parents should have,” said Erica Smith, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
In an age where the totally bankrupt assertion of “my truth” resonates, it’s not a good thing — it’s a great thing.