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Trump To Unveil New Guidance On School Prayer

Jan 16, 2020
Originally published on January 16, 2020 9:34 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump today is set to announce more support for students and teachers who want to pray in school. He also plans to make it easier for churches and other faith-based groups to get federal funding for their social outreach efforts. We have NPR's Tom Gjelten here to talk us through this. Hey, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: We'll start with the issue of school prayer. I mean, the courts have spoken out on this issue already. I mean, so can you just remind us, as things now stand, what is allowed?

GJELTEN: Well, obviously, students are allowed to pray privately. They can initiate prayers in school with other students, as long as it's not disruptive and done outside class time. They can organize religious clubs or prayer groups. And student speakers, on their own, can pray at student assemblies or extracurricular activities, as long as it's clear the school has nothing to do with it.

GREENE: And that sounds like an important distinction. So explain what is not allowed right now.

GJELTEN: Well, remember - there's a clause in the Constitution that says government cannot establish religion.

GREENE: Right.

GJELTEN: And the Supreme Court, more than 50 years ago, said this means schools cannot have an official prayer and requires students to recite it. Teachers or other school staff can't organize or encourage students to pray. There can't be any kind of coercion. Schools can't sponsor events that involve prayer. You can't have students praying over the school loudspeaker. And the school staff can't invite clergy to pray at school events, like graduation ceremonies.

GREENE: So is President Trump somehow moving the line and changing the situation here?

GJELTEN: Well, as we understand it, the administration will remind school officials around the country that students and teachers, under the First Amendment, do have those somewhat limited rights to pray, even in school. The White House says it's a matter of the president using his megaphone on the subject to get people to pay attention. Our White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez reports that letters will be going out to school officials emphasizing those rights. Also, the guidelines on what is and is not allowed will be clarified to underscore the exact right students and teachers have where prayer is concerned.

Franco spoke exclusively with Joe Grogan, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, and here's what Grogan said.

JOE GROGAN: We're trying across the board to invite religious institutions and people of faith back into the public square and say, look - your views are just as valid as anybody else's, and, oh, by the way, they're protected by the First Amendment of - to the Constitution.

GJELTEN: And one other point, David - under the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts receiving federal funds are legally obligated to certify they are upholding the right of students to pray in school. Grogan says the Trump administration will reaffirm the intent of that provision.

GROGAN: It will put them on notice that they could be at risk of losing federal funds if they don't provide protections for students' First Amendment rights, including religious beliefs.

GJELTEN: So that's a preview, David, of what President Trump will say and do today, from our colleague Franco Ordoñez.

GREENE: Well, and you sort of said what this is about, Tom - I mean, that the president wants to use a megaphone to put some attention on something. But is there evidence that students or teachers haven't been able to exercise this right?

GJELTEN: Well, President Trump is going to be hosting a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim students who do say they have faced discrimination in school because of their faith. He'll also be announcing a streamlined procedure to handle complaints from students who say they've faced discrimination. But I should also point out, David, that there have also been many cases reported of schools promoting prayer in ways that are illegal or unconstitutional.

GREENE: And briefly, what about the other part of this? The president is steering more federal funds to faith-based groups as well.

GJELTEN: Yeah. From what we're told, the president will be sending a message to federal agencies that disperse grants to organizations to support their outreach efforts. He'll tell them to make sure religious institutions don't get shortchanged in that process.

GREENE: NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, thanks.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.