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Behind The Initiatives Announced On National Religious Freedom Day


President Trump has promised evangelical supporters he'd have their back when it comes to students' and teachers' First Amendment right to pray in schools. Today, on the day he's designated National Religious Freedom Day, his administration made proposals designed to do just that. There were also some changes to make it easier for religious groups that provide social services to gain access to federal funds. But for more on what Trump's plan says about prayer in schools, we have Benjamin Marcus. He's from the Freedom Forum Institute's Religious Freedom Center. He's here with us.

Welcome to the program.

BENJAMIN MARCUS: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: The most high-profile part of this or sort of headline-grabbing part of this has been about school prayer. Can you help us understand exactly what's changing here?

MARCUS: It doesn't seem that a lot is changing. This seems to be a more symbolic gesture. The courts have been relatively consistent about issues related to prayer in public schools. Schools are not allowed to mandate certain prayers. They can't write those prayers.

Students, though, as people who are protected by the First Amendment, have free exercise rights. So they are allowed already to pray alone or in groups, provided their prayers aren't disruptive. So it looks like this is really an affirmation of rules that are already in place and a symbolic gesture for more conservative religious groups that have historically supported President Trump.

CORNISH: It also says, however, that local departments have to inform the U.S. Department of Education about any complaints made to them about a person who's allegedly denied the right to engage in constitutionally protected prayer - right? - and also creates, like, a certification where people have to prove each year that they are in compliance with the law. Can you help us understand how and why this might be necessary?

MARCUS: It's not a hundred percent clear why it is necessary. There have been a few high-profile cases that some leaders on the religious right have brought to public attention related to prayer in public schools. So this might be a way to let those supporters of the administration know that the administration cares about these issues. But the reporting requirements - they are new, but we don't certainly hear a great deal of demand for that kind of reporting, at least not historically.

CORNISH: So the idea here is the Trump administration saying to this community, not only do we care about protecting your religious freedom when it comes to school prayer, but we're going to be actively monitoring for instances where there may be violations.

MARCUS: That's right. And so we should be looking out for what this then means for schools, whether they will then be more aware of this issue. You know, that wouldn't be the worst thing if schools then had to do their research and find out what are the rules related to religion in public schools. But we certainly don't want this to be an opportunity for schools to think that they have the administration's backing to be a little bit more lenient with the rules and actually allow for things that might not be constitutional.

CORNISH: The president has actively courted evangelical and Catholic voters. I think this month, he told evangelical supporters that he'd be taking action to safeguard students' and teachers' First Amendment rights to pray in our schools. Do you see the announcement as part of him making good on that pledge?

MARCUS: I think there are some who see this latest announcement as symbolic gesture by the administration on behalf of their conservative Christian base, and I think it will be read that way by many in that community.

CORNISH: What's the one question people should be asking but are not?

MARCUS: People should be asking more about religion and education. Very often, the conversation about religion and education gets stuck on this particular question of prayer in public schools. And there are many more opportunities to talk about religion and public education that are both academically rigorous and constitutionally appropriate.

But we also have an opportunity in the law for teachers to teach about religion in academic and constitutional ways. And we certainly think that teaching about religion, when done well, will better prepare people to navigate the complexity of religious diversity in a country that we know statistically is becoming increasingly religiously diverse.

CORNISH: That's Benjamin Marcus of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Thank you for your time.

MARCUS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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