Free pass for prayer on campus

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: protecting religious liberty on campus.

Earlier this month, President Trump signed an executive order upholding religious liberty and the right to engage in religious speech in public schools.

TRUMP: We’re proudly announcing historic steps to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools. So you have the right to pray. There’s nothing more important than that, I would say. Tragically, there is a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict and even prohibit religious expression. That is why today my administration is issuing strong new guidance to protect religious liberty in our public schools…

MARY REICHARD, HOST: The Trump administration also proposed new rules to protect religious organizations from unfair treatment. Those rules will affect nine federal agencies that deal with faith-based groups. Joining us now to explain what it all means is Steve West. He writes the weekly religious liberty roundup for WORLD Digital. He’s also a fellow lawyer.

Good morning, Steve!

STEVE WEST, REPORTER: Good morning, Mary.

REICHARD: Let’s start with the new protections for K-12 students. What will those do for students and teachers?

WEST: Well, these will educate school administrators about students’ and teachers’ rights to live out their faith, basically, in the school environment. So, they’re guidelines. They make clear that students can pray or read or share religious materials outside of instructional time and participate in organized prayer groups—things like “See You at the Pole” or some other prayer groups or Bible studies—on the same basis as other extracurricular groups. And the same holds true for teachers.

REICHARD: Well, students already have constitutionally protected rights on campus. The Supreme Court has made that pretty clear. So is this really necessary?

WEST: Well, it is. And it’s not just advice. Public schools could lose federal funds if they don’t certify every year that they don’t have a policy in place that restricts this. So the guidance has some real teeth. And the other thing is it’s become increasingly common to hear about school officials shutting out religion—whether it’s because they’re ignorant about the law, or they fear of controversy, or they’re just downright hostile toward religious expression.

I can give you a good example of that—that would be Chase Windebank. In 2015 he was a sophomore at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs. He started a prayer group of students during a free period that grew to around 90 students at one time—until the school shut it down. They tried to work that out, but it actually took a lawsuit to turn it around.

Some of this is a part of a cultural devaluation of religious liberty—particularly among elites, and that includes educational elites—who just don’t think religious liberty is that important or really has a place in public life, that being religious is somehow backward or bigoted. That’s just not what most people think.

REICHARD: That’s K-12. There’s something in these new rules for Christian colleges and universities. Tell us about that.

WEST: There sure is, and these are rules not just guidance like the previous that I was talking about. They do a lot toward ensuring that a college or university is not treated differently just because it’s faith-based.

Back during the Obama administration, religious institutions were treated differently than their secular counterparts in federal grant-making. These rules level the ground in ensuring Christian colleges—for that matter, any religious college or university—are eligible for federal grants on the same basis as similar secular groups. And, again, there’s teeth in this because if they don’t comply, then they may lose their ability to receive a federal grant.

REICHARD: We talked about K-12, colleges and universities. What about the other rules we mentioned? Those don’t all deal with schools. What are some of those?

WEST: Well, they’re really all very similar to the ones that I just spoke about in the Department of Education. There are eight other federal agencies that administer grants that would impact religious organizations—from Agriculture to Labor to Homeland Security.

See, there are lots of religious social service agencies engaged in poverty relief, or taking care of the homeless, or working with refugees are helped by the rules.

If they get a federal grant, they’re on equal footing with secular groups that get federal funds—they can’t be discriminated against in that. And that’s even true in states that have these so-called Blaine Amendments, which are just state constitutional amendments that prohibit aid to religious groups. So, if states or local governments discriminate based on religion, they risk a cutoff off of the federal funds.

REICHARD: Well, I probably know the answer to this one, but is this the end of the story?

WEST: It hardly ever is. These are proposed rules, so now there’s a public comment period before they can be finalized. And of course, they can be challenged in court. But I think they’re on firm ground. Because of a case decided a couple years ago, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the Supreme Court found it discriminatory to exclude religious institutions from certain government programs simply because they are religious. So, we really have cause to be hopeful.

REICHARD: Yes, we do. Steve West writes Liberties, that’s the weekly religious liberty roundup for WORLD Digital. Steve, thanks for joining us today.

WEST: Thank you, Mary.

(Photo/Creative Commons, Flickr)

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