- In an announcement Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education emphasized that public schools must allow prayer and other forms of religious expression or risk losing federal funds.
- While this does not differ from existing guidance issued in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush, it suggests the department will be enforcing guidelines under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requiring state oversight of districts to ensure they have clear policies protecting the right to prayer in school and make available a clear process for students, parents and teachers to report violations of their right to pray.
- The department also proposed loosening requirements for religious schools to access federal grant funds. The proposed changes would no longer require religious schools receiving federal funds to notify students, parents and staff of their protections against religious discrimination and their right to opt out of religious activities, among other protections.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a press release she hopes the reinforcement of old guidelines and changes in grant requirements will "protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions" and "level the playing field" between public and religious schools.
However, education organizations are claiming this is an effort to push a larger agenda expanding private and religious schools while sidelining public education.
"DeVos and Trump are trying to rewrite the Constitution and trying to vitiate the separation of church and state," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, adding the department hasn't shown the same support for public schools that it has for private ones. "She has taken an oath into office to represent all kids, not just some kids."
In response to these concerns, the department said it actually acted to protect the First Amendment rights of students and teachers, which it said is "a far cry from mandating a religion." "In fact, it’s just the opposite," Education Department spokesperson Angela L. Morabito said.
The proposal comes less than a week before the U.S. Supreme Court is set to take on a case that could determine whether public funding can be spent at religious schools. Weingarten, the National Education Association and other education groups say these efforts could not only muddle separation of church and state, but could also siphon funds meant for public schools to private ones and essentially "destabalize" the entire public education system.
And while the proposal didn't change previous guidelines on school prayer, some suggest the department's emphasis is reviving the contentious "prayer in schools" debate. In a press release, Nick Little, vice president and general counsel for the Center for Inquiry, — a nonprofit that focuses on fostering secular society — said DeVos' "Orwellian threats" suggest the department wants "school-sponsored prayer and religious events."
However, the American Civil Liberties Union said the guidance is nothing new.
"Despite the president’s hype, there’s very little that’s new in today’s ‘school prayer’ guidance,” Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a press release. “Importantly, both the Bush guidance and the copycat document released today affirm a core constitutional protection: School officials are prohibited from imposing their faith on students. The question, as always, is whether public school officials will heed this warning."