Education Department warns against schools encouraging private prayer, other religious activity
The Biden administration this week updated its guidance on prayer and other religious expression in public schools, warning school employees not to encourage or endorse such activity.
“Teachers, school administrators, and other school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity,” the Education Department writes in its new guidance, which adds that the U.S. Constitution permits school employees to engage in private prayer during the workday.
However, the Education Department warns, school employees can’t “compel, coerce, persuade, or encourage students to join in the employee’s prayer or other religious activity.” The guidance goes on to say that schools may take “reasonable measures” to ensure that students aren’t pressured or encouraged to join in the private prayers of their teachers or coaches.
The guidance comes at a time of year when many graduation ceremonies are taking place across the country. According to the Education Department, public school officials “may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or select speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech such as prayer.”
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But if a speaker’s comments are not attributable to the school, their expression can’t be restricted because of its religious content and can include prayer. In such circumstances, school officials “may choose to make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker’s and not the school’s speech.”
The Education Department includes thoughts on how public schools should address a range of religious expression other than prayer. For example, students have the right to distribute religious literature to their classmates. Schools may impose “reasonable” restrictions on its distribution but “may not target religious literature for more permissive or more restrictive regulation.”
The guidance distinguishes between providing religious instruction and teaching about religion, describing the former as a way of promoting a particular belief system and the latter as a regular part of the curriculum.
“Philosophical questions concerning religion, the history of religion, comparative religion, religious texts as literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries are all permissible public school subjects,” the guidance states. “Similarly, it is permissible to study religious influences on philosophy, art, music, literature, and social studies.”
For example, the Education Department says student choirs at public schools can perform music inspired by or based on religious themes or texts as part of school-sponsored events, so long as the music “is not performed as a religious exercise and is not used to promote or favor religion generally, a particular religion, or a religious belief.”
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As for extracurricular activities, students may organize prayer groups and religious clubs just as they’re permitted to organize other, secular activity groups. In the classroom, meanwhile, students may pray and engage in other religious activity to the same extent as non-religious activity when they’re not involved in school activities or instruction in order to prevent disruptions in education.
“Although school authorities may impose rules of order and pedagogical restrictions on student activities, they may not discriminate against student prayer or religious perspectives in applying such rules and restrictions,” the Education Department writes.
The Biden administration’s updated guidance on prayer in school comes after the Supreme Court ruled last year that a public school district couldn’t stop a football coach from praying on the 50-yard line after games. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court held that preventing someone from engaging in such prayer as a personal religious observance violated the First Amendment’s protections of free speech and the free exercise of religion.
The organization American Atheists praised the Biden administration’s guidance, arguing the measures “protect the religious freedom of families whose children are in the public school system.”
The group referenced bills in some state legislatures that would increase the role of religion in schools — such as legislation in Texas that would require public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms — decrying them as attacks on religious freedom meant to promote “hateful” ideas.
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“We all see through Christian nationalists’ lies. They constantly scream ‘indoctrination’ whenever LGBTQ students affirm who they are. Yet they are actively seeking to indoctrinate students in theirhateful ideology,” Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, said in a statement. “The Biden administration’s guidance protects families from Christian nationalists’ hypocritical attempts to foster coercive religious exercise in schools.”
Other groups such as Americans United, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty similarly applauded the Biden administration’s guidance for protecting students of all beliefs and forbidding from leading students in religious exercises.
In contrast, many voices say religion needs a prominent role in public schools, arguing negative forces fill the vacuum in its absence.
“When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” New York City Mayor Eric Adamas, a Democrat, said earlier this year while speaking to religious leaders at the annual Interfaith Breakfast in Manhattan. “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.”
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Other critics say that schools are promoting far-left gender ideology in place of religion.
Rev. John Amanchukwu, a North Carolina pastor, said this week on “Fox & Friends First” that a sexually explicit book available to children in school libraries “glorifies masturbation while speaking against religion.”
Meanwhile, a seventh-grade student in Massachusetts filed suit against his school, alleging it censored his ability to exercise his First Amendment rights after he was told to take off a shirt saying, “There are only two genders.”