Cooper: Trump administration gives religious freedom a boost with new school, funding guidance

Staff File Photo / Marion County High School fans and players pray on the field before the school's 2016 game with Austin-East in Jasper, Tennessee.

From the reaction Thursday, you'd have thought President Donald Trump had established a state religion.

It's an "attack on the Constitution," said Democratic U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman of California and Jamie Raskin of Maryland.

The president is blurring the separation between church and state, said the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"[I]f necessary," said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, "we'll see them in court."

What, in heaven's name, did Trump do?

In the main, he announced the government was clarifying and detailing federal guidance on school prayer that was made in 2003. In truth, the new guidance made very few substantial changes from the previous George W. Bush-era rules.

What has changed in the last 17 years, though, are the increased attacks on students who pray, read their Bibles, write about their faith or want to share their spirituality with willing friends.

"You have things happening today that 10 or 15 years ago would have been unthinkable," Trump said in a White House ceremony on National Religious Freedom Day introducing the rules.

In 1962, the United States Supreme Court said anyone leading students in classroom prayer violated a First Amendment clause. With that, advocates for the ruling said school prayer was dead and in the last 58 years have been trying to convince anyone who will listen that dead means dead. As in no prayer, no faith, no Bibles, no religious celebrations, no mention of the word "God."

It wasn't true then, and it's not true now.

Students can pray individually or with like-minded friends. They can bring their Bibles to schools. They can have faith-based student clubs. They can write about their religion.

(MORE: Prayer remains important part of student life in Chattanooga area, even with its controversial history in the region)

The problem is they're very rarely told what they can do but more frequently what they can't do. Told "no" so often, many students believe they have no rights in school where their faith is concerned.

"The White House isn't saying whether one should pray or to whom or what they should pray to," said Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump's evangelical advisory board. "[T]hey are simply making it clear that in the United States students have First Amendment rights also, and our 'separation of church and state' wasn't intended to suppress a vibrant religious life in America but to facilitate it."

The new guidelines also order states to assure that school districts do not have policies limiting constitutionally protected prayer and to refer violators to the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, they provide ways in which those complaints should be made.

Along with the new prayer guidance, the Trump administration also said nine Cabinet departments will be providing rules requiring federal and state agencies to ensure a level playing field for religious entities alongside secular organizations where it comes to participating in government grant programs funded by federal tax dollars.

A 2018 executive order from the administration initially called for the level playing field for all organizations.

The end of many years of discriminatory policy naturally brought out criticism - and charges of discrimination - from organizations that had been favored until now.

"These rules undermine the civil rights and religious freedom of millions of our most vulnerable Americans who rely on social services - with particularly dire consequences for LGBTQ people and religious minorities," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"We are deeply alarmed," said Jenny Pizer, law and policy director for LGBTQ advocate Lambda Legal. The new rules "are very likely to increase discrimination."

One of the most prominent changes means religious groups which provide services will no longer be forced to give clients the names of other programs that provide the same services but do not have a religious component.

In the future, the administration said, people who do not like a group offering social services can simply choose another group.

"Today, through policy guidance, " said acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, "we are reaffirming that faith-based organizations should be treated the same as secular organizations ... . We believe the Constitution makes clear that as Americans, we don't have to leave our faith at the door of our home."

Trump, for all his indelicacies, has been the best friend of evangelicals in the areas of pro-life, faith and religious freedom issues since - and maybe including - Ronald Reagan. The irony, we're sure, is not lost on his critics.