Don’t Get Stuck on Prayers in Public Schools

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It’s time we stop reducing complex questions of religion and education to political debates about prayer.

The U.S. Department of Education announced a number of proposed rules and guidance related to religion and public schools last week on National Religious Freedom Day. Predictably, headlines focused on what the guidance means for students’ right to pray.

It’s time we stop reducing complex questions of religion and education to political debates about prayer.

To be fair to news outlets, a press release by the Department of Education framed its guidance as a defense of prayer — despite the fact that longstanding federal guidance already protected all of the rights mentioned in the Trump administration’s new document.

Politicians’ focus on prayer is not new and it is at least partially a partisan ploy. Speaking at a Florida megachurch on Jan. 3, President Trump teased the new Department of Education announcement by saying his administration would “not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the hard left” and that he was preparing to “safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights.”

But there are Americans in both major political parties who are deeply religious and politicians in both parties care about religious freedom. In 1995, officials in the U.S. education and justice departments of the Clinton administration sent a brief memo to every superintendent offering basic guidance about religious expression in public schools. Five years later, the U.S. Department of Education under the same administration decided to address a more extensive set of issues related to religion and education; members distributed five publications — including consensus statements affirmed by institutions across the religious, political and ideological spectrum — to every public school in the country. Then, in 2003, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, appointed by President George W. Bush, published a letter with updated guidance about religion in schools — which, notably, was framed as a prayer issue.

The guidance document released by the Trump administration last week does not protect rights for students or teachers that have not already been affirmed with bipartisan consensus for decades. Little has changed aside from a promise that this administration will enforce an old but oft-overlooked mandate, put in place by the 2003 No Child Left Behind Act, that requires superintendents to certify each year that their districts do not have policies that violate the Department of Education’s guidance.

So let’s not fixate on prayer in public education. Focusing on that single issue can mislead the public into thinking that students still do not have the right to pray in schools (they do), or that schools are religion-free zones (they are not). It often feeds a polarizing narrative that only one party cares about the rights of religious Americans. And such myopia stunts important conversations about the full range of issues regarding religion in schools.

In fact, last week’s announcement by the Department of Education included a number of other proposed rules, including some that deal with religious organizations’ access to education grants and the rights of religious student organizations on higher education campuses.

The guidance document on K-12 education alone did not just cover prayer. For example, the document affirmed students’ ability to form and publicize religious clubs on an equal basis with other types of clubs, rights protected by the 1984 Equal Access Act — which passed with bipartisan support in the Senate (88-11) and House (337-77). And the guidance document also affirmed that educators may teach about religion in a non-proselytizing manner per the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp.

If anything, Americans who care about religion and education should pay far more attention to this last point: the way teachers are trained — or not — to teach about religion academically and constitutionally. Poor instruction about religion can easily turn into government-led indoctrination, which would directly violate the First Amendment.

Ironically, a set of eight major policy recommendations related to K-12 religious studies education were published in a white paper less than two weeks before the Department of Education guidance. Recommendations include: expanding and strengthening teacher training in the academic study of religion; creating and distributing relevant curricular resources; and conducting research about the impact of religious studies education on student attitudes and behaviors. Despite a lack of media attention, the white paper has the potential to affect significantly the way scholars and educators prioritize efforts to improve constitutionally appropriate religious studies education in the United States.

The white paper came out of a national summit on religion and education co-hosted in September 2019 by four preeminent education and religious studies organizations. Leaders with different religious and ideological perspectives signed on to the document’s recommendations, laying out a roadmap for priority tasks that would affect the way K-12 students study religion around the country.

Yes, it is absolutely vital to help students whose right to pray has been violated by schools — though there is no evidence that these types of violations are widespread. But responding constructively to the recommendations outlined in the white paper published by my colleagues would do more to protect students’ religious freedom rights in public schools than reporting on or re-issuing guidance on student prayer first published more than 20 years ago.

Benjamin P. Marcus is religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. His email address is: [email protected].

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