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Trump administration makes new moves to protect religious freedom, including the right to pray in school


'The government must never stand between the people and God'

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration observed National Religious Freedom Day on Thursday with a series of executive efforts to protect the conscience rights of students, teachers and religious organizations, including the right to pray at school.

During a phone call briefing with reporters on Thursday, Domestic Policy Council director Joe Grogan said that the administration was taking "three big actions to ensure that people of faith are always able to exercise their rights to religious expression."

The first of those actions would be new federal regulations issued by nine different federal agencies that would "ensure that religious and nonreligious organizations are treated equally by the federal government, and that organizations are not discriminated against simply because they are religious in nature," Grogan explained on the call.

One of those departments — the Department of Education — announced a lengthy proposed rule on Thursday dealing with "five general areas of importance to religious organizations, faith-based institutions, and their students" in regards to the first amendment. Among its other provisions, the rule includes language meant to protect the rights of religious student organizations at colleges and universities that receive federal money.

"Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions," said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "The Department's efforts will level the playing field between religious and non-religious organizations competing for federal grants, as well as protect First Amendment freedoms on campus and the religious liberty of faith-based institutions."

Similarly, the Justice Department also announced a proposed rule that would "remove regulatory burdens on religious organizations and ensure that religious and non-religious organizations are treated equally in DOJ-supported programs."

"Since our nation's founding, there has always been a strong consensus about the centrality of religious liberty in the United States and the freedom of religious expression," Attorney General William Barr said of the proposal. "The Framers of the Constitution believed that both were indispensable to sustaining our free system of government."

Grogan also said that the president would announce updated federal guidance on prayer in public schools, which he said hadn't been updated since 2003.

"Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer in their official capacities, students and teachers do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,'" the guidance explains, citing a Supreme Court ruling.

The guidance requires that school districts have to annually certify in writing that they have "no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools" in order to receive federal funds, citing federal education laws; it also requires state education departments to annually notify the Department of Education "that have not filed the required certification or that have been the subject of a complaint" about policies impeding the right to pray.

The third action Grogan described was an Office of Management and Budget memo requiring federal agencies to ensure that their grant practices and the grant practices of state entities that take federal fundings comply with the religious freedom precedent set down by the Supreme Court in its 2017 Trinity Lutheran case. In that case, the court ruled it unconstitutional for the government to disqualify religious organizations access to public benefits because of their religious nature.

At a White House event announcing the prayer guidance on Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump called the right to pray "a very important and powerful right," adding "there's nothing more important than that, I would say."

"In a sacred principle of our republic, the government must never stand between the people and God," Trump continued. "Yet in public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith or following their religious beliefs; it is totally unacceptable."

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