Fri, 21 Feb 2020

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is set to release Thursday updated guidance on prayer in public schools that officials are touting as President Donald Trump's commitment to religious freedom.

Trump has made religious freedom a signature issue in his domestic and foreign policy, declaring a Religious Freedom Day and directing the State Department to host an annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, among other actions.

The updated U.S. Education Department's guidance on prayer in public elementary and secondary schools is drawing cheers from Trump's most vocal supporters among Evangelical Christians.

What does the law say about school prayer?

While school-sponsored prayer in U.S. public schools is prohibited, individual and group prayers on school grounds are not. American schools once used to start their day with a prayer or a reading from the Bible. That tradition came to a halt in 1962 when the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayers violated the Constitution's prohibition on establishing an official religion. Subsequent court rulings have recognized prayer in school as constitutionally protected.

What does the U.S. Education Department guidance say?

The guidance, last updated in 2003, requires local educational agencies to certify on an annual basis that they have no policy that prevents constitutionally protected prayer in elementary and secondary public schools. The education department can cut off funding to schools that don't comply with the policy. The department provides tens of billions of dollars to public elementary and secondary schools. More broadly, the guidance keeps school districts apprised of the law and the extent to which school prayer is constitutionally and legally protected.

What is allowed?

Students are free to pray alone or in groups while not in class or engaged in other school activities. They can read the Bible or other scriptures, such as the Koran. They may be excused from class to attend a prayer. Teachers may similarly take part in religious activities as long as they make clear they're not doing so "in their official capacities," according to the guidance.

What is not allowed?

While religion can be taught in public schools, schools are not allowed to sponsor religious activities such as prayers. Teachers, administrators and school employees are forbidden from "encouraging or discouraging prayer and from actively participating in religious activities with students," according to the guidance. For example, teachers may not lead their classes in prayer. Nor can school administrators include prayer in school-sponsored events.

What is being updated?

The Education Department hasn't disclosed details of the updated guidance. However, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan told reporters Thursday morning the guidance "will remind school districts of the rights of students, parents and teachers, and will empower students in others to confidently know and exercise their rights."

In addition to the education department updating its school prayer guidance, nine federal agencies are releasing proposed rules that will remove "discriminatory regulatory burdens" that the Obama administration placed on religious organizations that receive federal funding, Grogan said.

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