States would be required to report instances in which the right to pray has been denied in public schools under new guidance on religious freedom to be rolled out Thursday by the Trump administration.
Separately, the administration in a proposed rule is also moving to protect the rights of religious student groups at public universities, senior officials said on a call with reporters Thursday morning. “This places religious student groups on equal footing with secular student groups at public institutions of higher education,” an official said, speaking on background.
President Donald Trump will host an event in the Oval Office Thursday afternoon on school prayer, coinciding with National Religious Freedom Day.
The administration is also proposing that nine federal agencies adopt a new rule protecting religious freedom, including the Justice Department, the Agency for International Development and the departments of Agriculture, Labor, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Education and Housing and Urban Development.
“President Trump is committed to making sure that people of faith, particularly children, are not subjected to illegal punishment or pressure for exercising their constitutionally protected rights,” said Joe Grogan, head of Trump’s Domestic Policy Council, on the call.
“Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement.
Senior administration officials on the call with reporters said the actions are needed in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia vs. Comer, in which the the high court found it discriminatory to exclude religious institutions from certain government programs simply because they are religious.
The Education Department released a notice of the guidance in the Federal Register regarding the religious protections of prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.
A senior administration official described the proposal on prayer in K-12 schools as “fulfilling a statutory requirement to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.” It is updating guidance first issued in 2003 on a federal law.
The administration would require, as a condition of funding, that local schools certify once a year to their state departments of education that they have no policy that prevents participation in constitutionally protected prayer, a senior administration official said.
Once a year, state departments of education would also have to report to the U.S. Department of Education two things: a list of local school boards that failed to make the required certification and any complaints made to that department about a local school board or school that has allegedly denied a person a right to engage in constitutionally protected prayer.
The updated guidance clarifies that state departments of education must provide a clear process for people to report complaints about a local school board or a local school denying a person the right to engage in constitutionally protected prayer. Following the report, the state department of education must report the complaints to the Education Department.
The new guidance also clarifies that if a state department of education is aware of a lawsuit against a local school or school board that alleges it has denied a person the right to engage in prayer, then it has to report it to the Department of Education.
On the higher education front, the department plans to propose that as a condition of funding, a public institution of higher education cannot deny a religious group the same benefits, privileges and rights that other secular student groups have.