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The Department of Education updates guidance on public school prayer

New guidance from the Department of Education says a school may take reasonable measures to ensure students aren't pressured to join in their teachers' or coaches' prayers.
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New guidance from the Department of Education says a school may take reasonable measures to ensure students aren't pressured to join in their teachers' or coaches' prayers.

The U.S. Department of Education has issued updated guidance on prayer and other religious expressions in public schools.

The guidance follows last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision Kennedy vs. Bremerton, which held that a public school district could not stop a football coach from praying on the 50-yard line after games. The court ruled that such prayer was a personal religious observance and that preventing someone from engaging in such a practice violated the First Amendment's protections for free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The new guidance says "Teachers, school administrators, and other school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity."

It goes on to say the U.S. Constitution allows school employees themselves to engage in private prayer during the workday. But it warns that they may not "compel, coerce, persuade, or encourage students to join in the employee's prayer or other religious activity."

The guidance also says a school may take reasonable measures to ensure students aren't pressured to join in their teachers' or coaches' prayers.

In this season of graduation ceremonies, the Department of Education is reiterating earlier guidance that public school officials "may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or select speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech such as prayer."

In practice, when prayers are part of such events, they are offered by community religious leaders rather than school faculty or staff.

When such speakers offer prayers, the guidance says that school officials "may choose to make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker's and not the school's speech."

The Department of Education also offers counsel on how public schools should deal with religious expression other than prayer.

It says students have the right to distribute religious literature to their classmates but that schools may impose reasonable restrictions on how and when it's distributed. And it says schools "may not target religious literature for more permissive or more restrictive regulation."

The Department of Education also distinguishes between teaching religion and teaching about religion. It says public schools may not provide religious instruction meant to indoctrinate students into specific belief systems. But faculty, as part of the curriculum, may teach about religion as a subject of inquiry or influence.

For instance, courses about the Bible or Quran as literature would be permissible, as would classes or lessons on the role of religion in U.S. or world history.

Similarly, the guidance says the study of "religious influences on philosophy, art, music, literature, and social studies" are also permissible as long as the teaching "is not used to promote or favor religion generally, a particular religion, or a religious belief."

The group American Atheists is praising the Biden Administration's updated guidance. In a statement the organization says the move protects "the religious freedom of families whose children are in the public school system."

The organization points to a series of bills in state legislatures that inject religion into schools, calling them "an attack on the religious freedom of both students and parents."

For example, bills before the Texas legislature this session would allow schools to hire chaplains and require the displaying of posters in every public school classroom that list a version of the Ten Commandments.

In a statement, Nick Fish, the president of American Atheists criticizes such moves, which are often led by conservative lawmakers: "They constantly scream 'indoctrination' whenever LGBTQ students affirm who they are." Yet, he says these same legislators are actively seeking to indoctrinate students.

"The Biden Administration's guidance," Fish says, "protects families from Christian nationalists' hypocritical attempts to foster coercive religious exercise in schools."

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is also praising the Department of Education's updated guidance. The group's general counsel Holly Hollman says in a statement, "The U.S. Department of Education's new guidance does a good job protecting students of all faiths and students who don't practice a faith."

The statement goes on to say, "Religious liberty in public schools is safeguarded by forbidding teachers and other government employees from leading students in religious exercises while on duty or otherwise coercing students in matters of religion."

The Baptist Joint Committee's executive director Amanda Tayler earlier criticized the Trump Administration's rhetoric surrounding 2020 guidance on school prayer, saying it had "sounded a false alarm about the status of prayer in public school, echoing the claims of Christian nationalism."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.