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Trump Defends School Prayer. Critics Say He's Got It All Wrong

President Trump used the power of his office to remind public schools they risk losing federal funds if they violate their students' rights to religious expression.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump used the power of his office to remind public schools they risk losing federal funds if they violate their students' rights to religious expression.

Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET

President Trump on Thursday defended students who feel they can't pray in their schools — and warned school administrators they risk losing federal funds if they violate their students' rights to religious expression.

Trump held an event in the Oval Office with a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim students and teachers to commemorate National Religious Freedom Day. The students and teachers said they have been discriminated against for practicing their religion at school.

The U.S. Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools in a 1962 decision, saying that it violated the First Amendment. But students are allowed to meet and pray on school grounds as long as they do so privately and don't try to force others to do the same.

Trump said the government must "never stand between the people and God" and said public schools too often stop students from praying and sharing their faith.

"It is totally unacceptable," Trump said. "You see it on the football field. You see it so many times where they are stopped from praying and we are doing something to stop that."

The group included William McLeod, a 9-year-old Utah boy who was forced to remove the cross of ashes from his forehead on Ash Wednesday. "I just don't want anyone to feel like that," McLeod said.

Malak Hijaz said her school failed to protect her from anti-Muslim bullying. "I would bring the hijab to cover my hair and kids would make fun of me, harass me and attack me," she said. "And I would tell the principal."

'Real problem is just the opposite'

A non-profit group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation said Trump was blurring the separation between church and state with his actions. It said there has been an increasing number of reports of schools promoting prayer in ways that cross the line — such as an Alabama high school where a student football team was baptized at school. The group has sent complaint letters to more than 500 schools during the past three years.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said Trump left the impression that there is "this terrible suppression" of religion expression, but she says the "real problem is just the opposite."

"It's about proselytizing to a captive audience," Gaylor said.

Trump did not propose changes to existing law or regulations, but the White House says it wants to empower students and teachers to exercise their rights.

The Department of Education will send a letter to education secretaries and officials in all 50 states reminding them that students and teachers can't be discriminated against for practicing their First Amendment religious rights.

The administration updated 2003 guidance regarding prayer in public schools. The administration also plans to streamline and mandate a federal complaint process that students can use to alert authorities when they've been discriminated against.

The updated guidance states that "teachers and other public school officials, acting in their official capacities, may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities."

But at his event, President Trump also praised and defended Joseph Kennedy, a Washington state high school football coach who lost his job after he refused to stop praying on the field after games.

Evangelical support

The event comes as Trump works to shore up his support among evangelical Christians and other religious freedom advocates ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Last month, evangelical magazine Christianity Today ran an editorial calling Trump "morally lost" and argued that he should be removed from office.

Afterward, the president promised to take "action to safeguard students" during a campaign rally at a Miami evangelical megachurch.

The updated guidance to schools is one of three actions the Trump administration is taking to support the free exercise of religion. In addition, nine federal agencies are releasing proposed rules to ensure religious organizations are not discriminated against by the federal government.

The White House Office of Management and Budget will also direct federal agencies to ensure that states and other recipients of federal grants don't discriminate based on religion.

Joe Grogan, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said Trump's Oval Office event underscored the importance of religious freedom.

"Whenever the president of the United States draws his megaphone upon a subject, people will pay attention," Grogan said. "It's important for all Americans, parents, teachers, administrators and citizens to understand that the First Amendment protects religious beliefs and protects people in expressing their spiritual life in the public square."

NPR's Tom Gjelten contributed to this report.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.