I saw a story today announcing President Trump’s plan to offer updated guidance to “safeguard” students’ rights to pray in school. It is by no means the biggest story about the president in the news today, but I think it’s important to consider what it actually means.
I’ve written previously about what religious liberty actually means compared to how white evangelicals in America use the term, and this is another time when we need to make sure we’re truly supporting the religious liberty promised in the First Amendment.
First of all, like so much of Trump’s bluster, this is really not changing anything. As an NPR story on the announcement says, “There is no change to existing law or regulations, but the White House says it wants to empower students and teachers to exercise their rights.”
The story later references the Supreme Court decision in 1962 that declared school-sponsored prayer in public schools to be a violation of the First Amendment. However, there’s a huge difference between school-sponsored prayer and student and teacher rights to religious expression. That’s always been protected by the First Amendment and continues to be, provided those expressions don’t infringe on the rights of others. I participated in several “See You at the Pole” prayer events during my time in public school, participated in student-run Bible studies and read my Bible during quiet times in classes, and proudly wore all kinds of the corny faith-focused attire you might remember from the 1990s and early-2000s (WWJD bracelets, cross nail necklaces, punny shirts, etc.).
Now, I’m not about to make the mistake of assuming everyone else had the exact experience I had, but actual discrimination in public schools for expressions of Christian faith (that don’t serve as an imposition on the rights of others) is statistically extremely rare and almost always blown out of proportion in conservative “news” circles in an effort to feed the persecution complex.
Again, this new pronouncement of empowerment by Trump changes nothing. He is not “standing up for religious liberty” any more than anyone else; he’s simply repeating what’s been codified law for decades (and, really, centuries) to excite his base.
But as I mentioned above, let’s take a minute to look at this from beyond the framework of the white evangelical base. Yes, religious freedom means I had every right to pray while attending public school and wear my (painfully) corny shirts while proudly strutting around with my Bible to showcase my extreme holiness (which entirely missed the point of the Gospel, but I digress).
It also means Muslim students have an equal right to pray in school, wear hijabs, host Quran study groups and read their holy texts in their quiet times. It means Jewish students can do the same. As can Wiccans, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and all others.
If I have a right to get a group of students to “See You at the Pole,” so do the students of every other religious group. That is religious liberty. That is the First Amendment.
Please keep this all in mind as you consider the First Amendment, claims of persecution and demands for religious liberty. Yes, religious liberty is our right according to the Constitution. It is also the right of every other person in our country, even those who aren’t Christians.