On January 16th, President Trump unveiled the first updated White House guidance on school prayer since 2003. It was a promised follow-up to his Executive Order in 2018 putting religious groups on equal footing with other organizations competing for federal funds. There is talk across the country about what this new guidance means to Americans of faith. Let’s take a look at where the issue stood before the guidance and where it stands now.
The “restriction” regarding school prayer that most Americans have lived under their whole lives resulted from the 1962 Supreme Court case of Vitale vs. Engel. New York state had encouraged schools to begin each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer with the words, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country. Amen.” A group of New Hyde Park school parents led by a Jewish man, Steven I. Engel, sued the school board president, William J. Vitale, Jr., challenging the constitutionality of the school policy. The case drew frenzied response dividing the nation on the issue. It ascended to the Supreme Court which held that reciting government-written prayers in public schools was unconstitutional, violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Ever since that decision, well-meaning, but over-zealous Christians have lamented that our kids can’t pray in school anymore–that we have taken God out of the schools. Simply put, that has never been true. The Supreme Court decision and most subsequent lower court rulings prevent school policies that would allow administrators or faculty members to force or coerce students to pray. Granted, a few judicial rulings have overstepped the Supreme Court’s intention and have come down against any prayer by students. Most of those, though, have not withstood appeal.
What has hampered most student prayer has been school administration and faculty members who are paranoid about threats of parents or the ACLU. They have too often opted to create policy that actually does take away the religious rights of students.
In 2003, the federal government, responding to a groundswell of school-based religious rights violations, provided official guidance to schools regarding school prayer policy. This guidance clarified what schools could and could not do in school prayer matters. On January 16th in the Oval Office, President Trump unveiled the federal government’s first updated guidance on school prayer since 2003. It details scenarios in which school officials must permit prayer and clarifies the consequences if they don’t. Those consequences include loss of government funding for any schools violating student rights to pray. It also streamlines the complaint process for such violations.
The president signing the guidance with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students standing around him declared, “We will not let anyone push God from the public square. We will uphold religious liberty for all.” The students in attendance had each filed grievances over religious rights violations in school. Although this guidance made few major changes to what it replaced, it threw down the gantlet to liberal lawyers who see a lawsuit in every issue of school prayer. It also affirmed the president’s commitment to evangelical supporters.
The guidance makes it doubly clear that students have the First Amendment right to pray in school including organized group prayer. The 1962 Supreme Court decision was never about excluding that right. Challenges to that right have only come from over-reaction by lawyers and scared school officials. All American students can pray during free times at school. They can organize group prayer during free time, and even use school property for prayer meetings. Students can initiate prayer at sports events or any school event for that matter. The only restriction is that school administration or faculty members cannot initiate the prayers or in any way pressure students to pray.
The Trump administration has now put the American education system on notice to abide by the Supreme Court decision on school prayer, but to not add the tiniest restriction beyond that. Any future student complaint about violation of religious rights will be afforded the full support of the federal government.
So, let’s get over the myth that little Johnny or Suzie can’t pray in school anymore. But, let’s celebrate that our president has warned the nation’s attorneys, judges, education departments, and school officials that his administration will guard that right aggressively.