SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump highlighted his support for students Thursday as he outlined his administration’s plan to protect prayer in schools.
“You have the right to pray and that’s a very important and powerful right,” he said during an Oval Office event.
Trump’s prayer plan doesn’t change existing policy and, instead, focuses on ensuring current protections are understood and enforced. The administration has worked to improve the process by which students and teachers can file complaints and also asked educational leaders to confirm they comply with rules related to school prayer.
“We will not let anyone push God from the public square. We will uphold religious liberty for all,” Trump said during the event, which featured students and teachers from across the country, including William McLeod, a Utah student who received national attention last year when his teacher asked him to wash off the Ash Wednesday ashes from his forehead.
Students are allowed to pray privately in the classroom and elsewhere on school property, reference their faith in homework assignments and form religious clubs. However, school-sponsored prayers were outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1962.
“The court has repeatedly stressed that the Constitution prohibits public schools from indoctrinating children in religion,” Pew Research Center reported last year in an overview of school policies.
The Trump administration will send a letter to education officials across the country explaining current rules and reminding them that their schools could lose federal funding if they mistreat religious students. These efforts will help stop the erosion of existing protections driven by growing hostility toward religion, said Joe Grogan, the White House director of domestic policy council, to NPR.
In addition to holding an event at the White House on school prayer, the administration celebrated National Religious Freedom Day by announcing plans to strengthen protections for faith-based groups that partner with the government to provide social services, such as housing and food.
The Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services and seven other federal offices said they will adjust the guidelines governing church-state partnerships in order to ensure religiously affiliated social service organizations don’t have to alter their religious identities in order to receive government funds.
“Americans of faith play an essential role in providing health care and human services to so many vulnerable people and communities, and President Trump is dedicated to removing every unfair barrier that stands in the way of this important work,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in his department’s statement.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also praised the administration’s efforts, stating that she shares President Donald Trump’s “commitment to religious freedom and the First Amendment.”
“Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions,” she said.
Policy changes include undoing an Obama-era regulation that required faith-based organizations involved in government programs to offer referrals to clients who did not feel comfortable being served in a religious context. That rule was unfair since it placed a burden on religious groups that was not placed on secular providers, according to Trump administration officials.
This change and other adjustments stem from a 2018 executive order that celebrated religious organizations’ ability to serve people in need. It established the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative and instructed federal officials to ensure that faith-based groups could compete “on a level playing field” against secular groups for government grants.
“We take this step because we know that, in solving many, many problems and our great challenges, faith is more powerful than government,” Trump said when he signed the executive order in May 2018.
Melissa Rogers, who worked on faith-based partnerships for the Obama administration, spoke out against the policy changes on Twitter, noting that the new protections for religiously affiliated social service organizations could weaken protections for religious individuals seeking help.
“The religious liberty of social service beneficiaries is as important as the religious liberty of faith-based providers,” she said.
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said religiously affiliated service providers should be required to help potential clients understand their options if they would prefer receiving help from a secular provider.
“These rules undermine the civil rights and religious freedom of millions of our most vulnerable Americans who rely on social services,” she said in a statement.
However, other religious freedom advocates welcomed the changes and said all people of faith are better off when the government acknowledges and addresses religious groups’ concerns.
“We commend President Trump for his strong efforts to protect America’s first freedom; religious freedom,” said Kelly Shackelford, the president and chief counsel of First Liberty Institute, in a statement.