Speaking to a group of evangelical supporters at a Miami mega-church Jan. 3, President Donald Trump promised that something big was afoot concerning the issue of school prayer.
"Very soon I'll be taking action to safeguard students' and teachers' First Amendment rights to pray in our schools," Trump said during the event at King Jesus International Ministry. "They want to take that right along with many other ones."
Thirteen days later, on Religious Freedom Day, Trump unveiled the news: The U.S. Education Department and the U.S. Justice Department released a 15-page document providing guidance on prayer and other religious activities in public schools.
While Trump made a big deal about the release of the document, it was hardly the Earth-shattering move he portrayed it to be. Federal law requires that administrations periodically issue religion-in-public-school guidelines. The administration of President Bill Clinton first issued such guidelines in 1995. They were reissued in 1998, and in 2003, the George W. Bush administration issued its own guidelines.
The Trump guidelines, which were vetted by Attorney General William Barr, largely tracked those previous versions but did add some problematic passages. Chiefly, the document requires states to establish mechanisms for collecting complaints about alleged violations of religious freedom from public school students and staff. State officials are required to send these complaints to the federal government, even if they believe they're without merit.
Americans United's Legal Department analyzed the guidelines and found several other troubling areas:
* The guidelines state that students have an absolute right to "attempt to persuade their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics." Interpreted broadly, this rule could open the door to religiously based harassment and bullying. Equating religious speech with political speech also invites students to introduce religious topics into classrooms at times when it may not be appropriate.
* The guidelines imply that "student-initiated prayer" is permissible at school-sponsored events, a standard that has never been adopted by the Supreme Court.
* The guidelines cite a 1984 federal law known as the Equal Access Act to assert that student-led religious clubs may deny leadership positions based on religious or moral views. In fact, the Equal Access Act does not say that.
AU also has concerns that Trump will use the...