President Trump used a public event this week to portray the federal government as an entity that champions and protects religious expression, even using the tool of federal funding to ensure that schoolchildren are able to share their faith inside school walls.
As he does so, a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which views expression of religious faith as something to be prohibited by government, is working to muzzle people’s faith in schools. The group has sent warning letters to more than 500 schools over the past three years.
On Jan. 16 Trump defended students who feel they can’t pray in their schools — and warned administrators they risk losing federal money if they stifle their students’ religious expression. At an event in the Oval Office, a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim students and teachers commemorated National Religious Freedom Day. The students and teachers said they have been singled out for practicing their religions at school, according to National Public Radio.
The U.S. Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools in a 1962 decision, saying that it violated the First Amendment. But students are allowed to meet and pray on school grounds as long as they do so privately and don’t use their right to free speech to urge others to do the same.
Trump said the government must “never stand between the people and God” and said public schools too often stop students from praying and sharing their faith.
“It is totally unacceptable,” Trump said. “You see it on the football field. You see it so many times where they are stopped from praying and we are doing something to stop that.”
The group included William McLeod, a 9-year-old Utah boy who was forced to remove the cross of ashes from his forehead on Ash Wednesday. “I just don’t want anyone to feel like that,” McLeod said.
Malak Hijaz said her school failed to protect her from anti-Muslim bullying. “I would bring the hijab to cover my hair and kids would make fun of me, harass me and attack me,” she said. “And I would tell the principal.”
The Freedom from Religion Foundation said Trump was blurring the separation between church and state. It said there has been an increasing number of reports of schools promoting prayer in ways that cross the line — such as an Alabama high school where a student football team was baptized at school.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said Trump left the impression that there is “this terrible suppression” of religion expression, but she says the “real problem is just the opposite.”
“It’s about proselytizing to a captive audience,” Gaylor said.