Earlier today, the Trump administration issued a statement supposedly strengthening students’ right to pray at school… which is the government equivalent of a band getting applause for shouting out the name of the city they’re in. There’s no real work involved but fans love the lip service.
Let’s be clear: Kids can always pray in school. No one has ever tried to take that right away from them, including atheists. It’s only when the line is crossed — when coaches lead the prayers, or staffers participate in the prayers, or a public address system is used to broadcast those prayers — that legal action must be taken.
Not that the white evangelicals surrounding Trump care for that nuance. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a phone call that the government would be “protecting” students’ right to worship, a right that already exists.
“Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers and faith-based institutions,” DeVos said. “The department’s efforts will level the playing field between religious and nonreligious organizations competing for federal grants, as well as protect First Amendment freedoms on campus and the religious liberty of faith-based institutions. I proudly share President Trump’s commitment to religious freedom and the First Amendment.”
The Education Department also plans to issue guidance that will require local school districts to certify that they have no rules or regulations that conflict with students’ right to pray at school. It will also require states to notify the Education Department if there are complaints against a school district regarding the right to pray. The department does not have similar reporting requirements for states when a school district is accused of other types of discrimination.
That certification is unnecessary since that’s how public school already work. But you can bet right-wing groups will declare it a victory. As for the complaints, it’s not clear what qualifies. If a coach prays with students — which is illegal — but Christian parents complain because they want the coach to break the law, are schools required to tell the government about it? If so, what’s the administration going to do?
It’s all just a way to appease angry conservative Christian who demand the ability to force their religion down everyone else’s throats.
Even beyond that, several government agencies published proposed rules that would allow taxpayer money to go to faith-based organizations while lowering the bar for what those groups must do to receive the cash.
Nine federal agencies, including the Education Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department, are proposing rules that would reduce requirements for those religious organizations. The rules would lift an Obama-era executive order that compelled religious organizations to tell the people they serve that they can receive the same service from a secular provider.
American Atheists says these rules would impact “women, religious minorities, LGBTQ people” and other groups that rely on federal services.
“By removing protections that shield minority groups from discrimination, the Trump Adminstration is proving how virulently opposed to religious equality it is. Whenever a policy creates the slightest inconvenience for Trump’s Evangelical base, this Administration eliminates it, regardless of consequences,” said Alison Gill, American Atheists’ Vice President for Legal and Policy.
“Time and time again, the Trump Administration has shown it doesn’t care about religious freedom for all Americans. It only cares about doling out spoils to Christian nationalists to solidify his base for the 2020 election,” said American Atheists’ President Nick Fish. “By stripping these basic protections, Donald Trump is making taxpayers complicit in forced religious indoctrination and discrimination. It’s an outrage and a complete abdication of his oath to protect and defend the Constitution.”
Christianity isn’t under attack. White evangelicals just love to pretend they’re being persecuted when all we’re asking for is that they play by the same rules as the rest of us. They can’t handle that. In theory, all of these protections would apply to Muslims, too. And yet you can easily imagine the outrage from the Christian Right if a different president proposed the same rules in order to help “persecuted Muslims.”
This isn’t about religious freedom. This isn’t about protecting students’ right to worship as they see fit. It’s about using the power of the government to give Christians another leg up — as if they don’t have enough privilege already.
The only benefit to the administration’s announcement today is that the orders that involve public schools are toothless. It may be more paperwork for administrators, but there’s no real change. But be on the lookout for how Christian groups spin this — as if Trump has somehow protected their religion even though it was never in any danger.
The other rules, however, will hurt people. It’ll allow religious groups to provide subpar service to citizens without proper oversight or regulation. All from an administration that has spent years hurting as many poor, struggling people as they can. All with the overwhelming support of white evangelicals who care for nobody but themselves.
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