President Trump issued updated rules Thursday to ensure that public school students are allowed to engage in constitutionally protected prayer, calling his action “the Right to Pray.”
“Government must never stand between the people and God,” the president said during an Oval Office meeting with students of faith from across the country.
Mr. Trump warned that there is a “growing totalitarian” bent on the Left against religion. He said blocking prayer in schools “is totally unacceptable.”
Taking the action on National Religious Freedom Day, Mr. Trump announced updates to federal guidance on school prayer, which is required by federal law every two years but hasn’t been done since 2003.
The guidance states that school officials “may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities, nor may school officials use their authority to attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.”
“President Trump is committed to making sure that people of faith, particularly children, are not subjected to illegal punishment or pressure for exercising their constitutionally protected rights,” said White House Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan.
But the American Civil Liberties Union said there was very little difference between Mr. Trump’s guidance and the rules issued by President George W. Bush in 2003.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that public schools cannot sponsor an official prayer or coerce students into praying. But students generally can pray at any time, as long as it’s not disruptive.
Mr. Grogan cited the 2018 case of students at Honey Grove Middle School in Texas who gathered in the school lunchroom to pray for a former classmate hurt in a car accident, only to be warned by their principal not to do it again. When they prayed the next day, the principal moved them behind a curtain.
First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal organization, told the school district that the principal’s action had violated the students’ rights, and the school reversed its policy.
First Liberty President and Chief Counsel Kelly Shackelford, who attended the White House event, said the updated guidelines “ensure that the religious liberty of students in public schools is protected.”
Also on Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar addressed representatives of 34 nations about a “holistic” approach to women’s health that doesn’t include abortions. The meeting, which was held at Blair House, was closed to the press.
Mr. Azar told The Washington Times after the meeting that he issued a challenge to international health groups, such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations, that have sought to define abortion as an worldwide right for women.
“We have no interest in trying to tell other countries what they should believe on these topics,” he said. “But they should not attempt to use these important, multilateral [groups] to force — whether it’s a country as big and powerful as the United States or a small, impoverished, donor-recipient country — to their views on these very important subjects.”
Mr. Azar added that decisions on when abortion should or shouldn’t be illegal are “issues to be resolved within our national sovereignty.”
The Trump administration has been vocal in its support for pro-life values, and has drawn criticism, especially from European countries.
Last fall, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft explained the Trump administration’s decision not to sign a resolution on women, peace and security because it objected to language that euphemistically referred to abortion.
The U.S. also signed onto a letter — with Nigeria, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia, among other nations — declaring that “such terms do not adequately take into account the key role of the family in health and education.”
“If the United States adopts this view, respect that and don’t attempt to sneak words in, like ‘reproductive rights’ or ‘sexual and reproductive health,’ that you then have U.N. bureaucrats afterward claim actually adopted rights to abortion as fundamental rights that are subject to human rights law and enforcement mechanisms under U.N. charters or WHO obligations,” Mr. Azar said Thursday.
He noted that next Friday’s annual anti-abortion rally March for Life will be the fourth during the Trump presidency and that the number of abortions in the U.S. have fallen to the lowest level since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
“I don’t think it is a coincidence that we’re seeing those declines with the leadership of the most pro-life president and vice president in the history of the United States,” Mr. Azar said.