President Donald Trump unveiled new federal guidelines today to protect the constitutional right to pray in public schools.
The president previewed his idea earlier this month at the Evangelicals for Trump rally at the King Jesus International Ministry in Florida, saying he would take action to safeguard students' and teachers' First Amendment rights to pray in school.
"We will not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the hard Left," Trump said.
The president told CBN News' David Brody at the White House Thursday, "Well, it is a cultural war. You have two sides. You have a side that believes so strongly in prayer and they're being restricted and it's getting worse and worse and I think we've made a big impact. And we're loosening up a lot and I want to loosen it up totally. But you do have things happening today that 10 or 15 years ago would have been unthinkable, what's happening."
Now the US Department of Education is sending letters to officials in all 50 states to ensure students and teachers don't face discrimination for practicing their right of religious freedom.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos explained the new rules protect students' right to pray, but they also go beyond that to protect faith-based student groups and much more: "The Department's efforts will level the playing field between religious and non-religious organizations competing for federal grants, as well as protect First Amendment freedoms on campus and the religious liberty of faith-based institutions."
White House Domestic Policy Director Joe Grogan said, "We're going to be making it clear that students have the right to pray publicly in school if they so choose."
Due to cases where the law has been misunderstood, today's announcement reinforces what's on the books. Grogan says it will "remind the chief education officers in all 50 states that students have the right to pray at their own direction, to gather at their own direction, to bring the Bible to school if they choose to, to bring the Koran or the Torah in."
The bottom line is this: Public schools now risk losing federal funds if they violate students' rights to religious expression.
The prayer announcement comes on Religious Freedom Day, an annual event held on January 16 to mark America's long history of protecting religious liberty going all the way back to the 1786 passage of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
"A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure, because justice, goodness and peace cannot prevail without the glory of Almighty God," Trump said this month at his evangelical rally. "For America to thrive in the 21st Century we must renew faith and family as the center of American life."
"These angry radicals want to impose absolute conformity by censoring speech, tearing down crosses and symbols of faith and banning religious believers from public life," he said. "But we will not back down, we are standing tall for the values that we hold dear."
"I will be taking action to safeguard students' and teachers' First Amendment rights to pray in our schools," Trump said. "They want to take that right along with many other rights."
"My administration will never stop fighting for Americans of faith," he said. "I really do believe we have God on our side."
Franklin Graham tweeted, "Thank you President Trump for protecting and empowering the right to student-led prayer in schools."
Dr. David Jeremiah, pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church, praised the president's effort to defend the right to pray in school.
"President Trump has made the right decision to give America's children permission to pray again in our public schools. It's absurd that generations of our children, in our public schools, have been raised to think that there's little to no place for faith outside of one's church, one's home or one's heart. Our public schools ought to be places where people of faith feel free to be who they are, and -of course- no one really believes doing so constitutes enforcing one's personal faith on another. Our founding fathers would be utterly astonished that the one thing we thought wise was to deprive our children of their faith through America's education system. Can't we just agree that America is better off when people of faith pray, beginning with our children?"
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Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said, "For years, we've watched secularists pressure school administrators into telling students that they can't pray, read their Bibles, or talk about their faith in class. Some school officials are willing participants in the secularists' intimidation campaign while others fear the lack of funding to fight threatened lawsuits. Now the tables are turned. The onus is now on states to certify that they are compliant with U.S. Department of Education guidelines which protect students' religious freedom. If schools fail to protect religious freedom, they now run the risk of losing federal funding. With this and his other announced rules, President Trump is continuing the drumbeat of religious freedom and the long march toward restoring religious freedom in the public square."
Rev. Johnnie Moore, a commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, is applauding the move, saying it's just the latest proof that President Trump is a champion of religious freedom.
"The White House isn't saying whether one should pray or to whom or what they should pray to, they are simply making it clear that in the United States students have First Amendment rights also, and our 'separation of church and state' wasn't intended to suppress a vibrant religious life in America but to facilitate it. Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, where he referenced this separation, was actually more about protecting the church from the State than the State from the church," Moore said.
He says he experienced a taste of the discrimination that other faith-filled students often experience in America's public schools.
"I found my personal faith in middle and high school as my family moved several times among multiple states and I attended multiple public schools. When I became passionate about my Christianity, I decided to start prayer meetings at each of my schools. I generally did so outside of school - before school - because these public schools, even in the Bible Belt, had a total paranoia about the separation of church and state which required us students to pray in the cold or rain, outside," Moore recalls.
"Even in those environments that were more open, the approval processes seemed intentionally burdensome. I was once called into a principal's office in one of my high schools for trying to have a Bible study during the lunch hour. It was totally absurd."
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Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said, "This is a decision that should be celebrated by Democrats and by Republicans, by the religious and the irreligious, by all Americans from sea to shining sea who recognize the brilliance of the American idea wasn't in a fear of religion but in the vibrancy of faith. Faith to believe that God exists or that he doesn't, faith to pray before we legislate or anchor our pledge and our currency in subservience to a higher power. Faith to sing the song of freedom as the arc of history bends toward justice. Our children need not fear faith, especially in our sacred institutions of learning."