Mark Silk on Trump and Thomas Jefferson on Religious Freedom

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


In case you missed it, Thursday was National Religious Freedom Day, which is celebrated on Jan. 16 to mark the date in 1786 when the Virginia General Assembly passed Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. That statute, which Jefferson considered one of his three crowning achievements (along with the Declaration of Independence and the University of Virginia), disestablished the Anglican Church in Virginia and set the stage for the establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as the Article 6 ban on religious tests for office.

So there is a certain irony in President Donald Trump’s using the day to push in the opposite direction.

In an Oval Office photo op with schoolchildren, Trump, reading from a prepared text, declared, “This afternoon, we’re proudly announcing historic steps to protect the First Amendment ‘right to pray’ in public schools.”

Actually, not so much.

The “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools” released by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was essentially identical to the “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools” put out by George W. Bush’s Education Department in 2003 — which in turn was much the same as “Religious Expression in Public Schools: A Statement of Principles,” which the Clinton education department promulgated in 1995 and updated in 1998.

Principle 1, first laid down in the school prayer and Bible reading cases of the early 1960s, is that the Constitution (in the words of the Trump guidance) “forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer in their official capacities.” Principle 2, specified in various subsequent decisions, is that students and teachers get to exercise their free exercise and speech rights in a school setting so long as they do so in ways that do not violate Principle 1.

These principles can fairly be considered Jeffersonian. For over half a century, however, religious conservatives have assailed the prayer and Bible-reading decisions for “kicking God out of the public schools” and have looked for ways of getting around them.

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that a Texas school district’s arrangement for student-led prayers at high school football games was unconstitutional because it involved both perceived and actual government endorsement of the delivery of prayer at important school events. A year ago, the Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court decision upholding the dismissal of a Washington state football coach who was fired for leading players in prayer on the field after games.

In his remarks, Trump lamented that “in public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith or following their religious beliefs. It is totally unacceptable. You see it on the football field.” That last sentence was a nice little dog whistle for the prayer endorsement crowd.

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Source: Religion News Service