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Bishops welcome guidance on school prayer, Trump’s proposed rules

States will be required to report cases where public school students have been denied their right to pray

WASHINGTON — The chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty and Catholic education committees Jan. 20 praised the Trump administration for issuing guidance on prayer in public schools.

The chairmen also welcome the administration’s nine proposed rules to ensure the nation’s faith-based service providers and organizations are not discriminated against by federal agencies’ regulations or in their grant-making processes because of religion.

“We wish to express our gratitude for these steps to ensure that the constitutional right of individual students and teachers to pray voluntarily in public schools is protected,” said Bishop George V. Murry, of Youngstown, Ohio, and Bishop Michael C. Barber, of Oakland, California. “This fundamental right ensures that persons may freely worship without sacrificing full participation in schools and in society.”

The bishops — respectively, the chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, and its Committee on Catholic Education — made the comments in response to President Donald Trump’s guidance on prayer in public schools and proposed rules issued Jan. 16, National Religious Freedom Day.

Primarily, states will now be required to report cases where public school students have been denied their right to pray.

Among other changes, for schools to receive federal funding, they will need to certify once a year with state education departments that they do not have policies in place that would prevent students from constitutionally protected prayer, a senior administration official said.

Regarding the proposed rules, Trump said his administration “is committed to ensuring religious organizations can compete on a level playing field for funding, without discrimination.”

The rules affect several federal agencies, including Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Labor, Agriculture, Education, Justice, Homeland Security and International Development.

Under previous requirements, faith-based service providers have had to give notice they are religiously affiliated and must make available a list of alternative secular service providers.

Supporters of the Trump administration’s proposed rules say they will ensure implementation of what the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer in 2017. The justices ruled Missouri had wrongly determined the church as a religious entity could not receive public funds for a playground used by students no matter their religion.

In their Jan. 20 statement, Bishops Murry and Barber stated they were “heartened by the administration’s action to ensure federal agencies are fully compliant” with the Trinity Lutheran ruling.

“That decision properly concluded that it is unconstitutional for government to exclude faith-based organizations from public benefits simply because of their religious status,” they stated.

“Lastly, we are grateful for the proposal to lift certain regulatory burdens from faith-based organizations,” the bishops wrote. “This will help ensure a level playing field for religious and secular social service providers.”

Trump said the Office of Management and Budget also was to release a memo requiring federal agencies to ensure the grant-making practices of state recipients of federal funding comply with the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.

“Our nation has a proud heritage of religious freedom, and of religious institutions providing care and support to the poor and needy,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia said in a statement about Trump’s proposed rules. Under these, he added, “religious organizations that receive federal grants may provide aid to the needy without posting a warning label regarding their faith.”

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