President Trump commemorated National Religious Freedom Day with a group of teachers and students in the Oval Office this past week. During the event, the President affirmed the student’s right to pray in public schools. This is very much in keeping with the Trump administration’s efforts to support the free exercise of religion and improve how religious organizations are treated by the federal government.
One student, a Catholic boy from Utah, told Trump during the commemoration how he was forced to remove ashes from his forehead at his largely Mormon school. Another student, a girl from Texas, told how a teacher reprimanded her after she was seen praying with friends for a student who had been hurt in an accident. The teacher told her to hide her prayers in some secluded area in the future. Trump told the group the right to pray is a very important right. There’s nothing more important than that, he said.
A student’s personal right to pray is separate and distinct from the issues decided by the Supreme Court in the school prayer cases starting in the 1960s. The personal right to pray involves the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court cases were about government-sponsored prayers amounting to an unconstitutional establishment of religion, under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
In 1962, the Court - after a campaign by atheists - held that a nondenominational prayer composed by the government could not be read at the beginning of the school day. [Engel v. Vitale] The Court focused on the fact that the government wrote the prayer and directed it be read in school. A year later, the Court knocked down a state law and city rule requiring students to read Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer in unison at the start of school every day. [Abington School District v. Schempp] The cases went on from there to cover moments of silence, graduation ceremonies, and other particular questions. Some of the cases involved coercion, subtle or otherwise, where students would feel forced to go along with prayer or be made to feel unwelcome. The Court has ruled that even encouraging students to deliver prayers at a school football game constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion under the establishment clause. [Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 2000] [see discussion of cases in Chemerinsky, Constitutional Law - Principles and Policies (4th Ed.) at pp. 1260-1265]
Even though the commemoration in the Oval Office this past week involved personal prayer, not state action, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and other activists still criticized President Trump for blurring the lines between separation of church and state. They say there is an increasing number of instances of public schools promoting prayer in constitutionally impermissible ways.
But we’ve seen this before, where the authoritarian Left twists existing law and bullies people with it way beyond what the law actually says. It’s a leap to say that court decisions prohibiting public schools from opening with a government prayer each day also force kids to hide away somewhere if they want to pray on their own. That’s what former Justice Kennedy and former Chief Justice Rehnquist would call “hostility” to religion and it’s time for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and other militant atheists to live and let live. President Trump is to be commended for restoring some balance and common sense to the issue of personal prayer.