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Biden education department warns against schools encouraging private prayer

By Elizabeth Delaney
|
May 19, 2023

The choices of prayer and other religious expression in public schools were addressed by the Biden administration this week as updates were released through the Department of Education that warned school employees about encouraging or endorsing religious expression.

"When teachers, coaches, and other public school officials speak in their official capacities, they may not engage in prayer or promote religious views, the Department of Education wrote in its updated policy document.

The document also noted that "schools must also maintain neutrality among faiths rather than preferring one or more religions over others."

Government Document Details How Teachers and Students May Express Their Religious Beliefs

As an example, the document states that, "teachers, coaches and other public school officials acting in their official capacities may not lead students in prayer, devotional readings or religious activities, nor may they attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities or to refrain from doing so."

As an additional example, it stated that a public school official is prohibited from "inviting a rabbi to deliver prayers at graduation ceremonies because such conduct was 'attributable to the State' and applied 'subtle coercive pressure' that effectively required students to choose between praying or openly displaying their opposition to the prayer."

At the same time, students are free to act on their own accord in regard to religious expression at certain times.

The document specifically notes that it is Constitutional when any public school student engages in "...voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day, and therefore students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other comparable conversations or activities.

"Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious matters just as they may do with regard to, for example, political matters," the document read.

At the same time, the document also noted that, "School officials may impose reasonable rules of order on student speech and activities as long as they do not discriminate against student speech or activities for being religiously motivated or reflecting a religious perspective."

American Atheists Organization Voices its Approval of Biden's Updated Policy

The organization American Atheists gave a positive nod to the Biden administration's updated guidance, stating it felt the policy would protect the right of those in the public school system who prefer to be exempt from religious influence, according to Fox News.

As an example of religious influence, the group specified its dislike of a bill in the Texas state legislature that rquires public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms, claiming that such a bill is an attack on religious liberty that's intended to promote "hateful" ideas, according to Fox News.

New York City Mayor Voices Disapproval About Biden's Updated Policy

That being said, there are others who feel that religion should be more openly celebrated in public schools because of the importance of the moral fiber it encourages.

"When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools," New York City Mayor Eric Adamas, a Democrat, said earlier this year when he spoke to religious leaders at the annual Interfaith Breakfast in Manhattan, According to Fox News

"Don't tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies," he said.

Conservative Groups Voice Concerns About Biden's Updated Policy

There are also conservative legal groups that have concerns regarding the updated policy, believing it has too much potential to bring about an increase in threats to the First Amendment rights of school employees and students.

“We respect that the Biden administration acknowledges the important religious liberty rights of public school employees as the Supreme Court declared in its Kennedy decision last year,” Keisha Russell, counsel at the First Liberty Institute said in a statement emailed to the The Christian Post on Tuesday.

However, Russell also warned that,  “the administration’s new guidance relies on old propositions derived from the overturned Lemon decision."

That reference was in connection to a 1971 Supreme Court decision in which government involvement was allowed in religion as long as a secular purpose was being served, it didn't inhibit or advance religion, and didn't bring about an overt blending of church and state.

However, there have been recent Supreme Court decisions that have stepped away from that, concluding that it's not necessary for religious expression on government property to implement that standard.

"We commit to ensuring that any restriction placed on religious freedom by those outdated cases is restored to the fullest extent required by the First Amendment," Russell told The Christian Post.

Another conservative legal group that expressed concern is Alliance Defending Freedom.

Greg Chaufen, legal counsel with the the organization explained to The Christian Post that he believes the updated policy, "reiterates the previous guidance issued in the final days of the Trump administration with a few stylistic changes [that] could lead to confusion, [in part because of] a section that ensured that students could pray during the lunch hour."

"This could lead to more violations of students’ rights to pray during free time, just like what happened to ADF client Chase Windebank in Windebank v. Academy School Dist. #20," Chaufen told The Christian Post.