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Education Department warns against schools encouraging private prayer, other religious activity

The Biden administration this week updated its guidance on prayer and other religious expression in public schools, warning school employees not to encourage or endorse such activity.

“Teachers, school administrators, and other school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity,” the Education Department writes in its new guidance, which adds that the U.S. Constitution permits school employees to engage in private prayer during the workday.

However, the Education Department warns, school employees can’t “compel, coerce, persuade, or encourage students to join in the employee’s prayer or other religious activity.” The guidance goes on to say that schools may take “reasonable measures” to ensure that students aren’t pressured or encouraged to join in the private prayers of their teachers or coaches.

The guidance comes at a time of year when many graduation ceremonies are taking place across the country. According to the Education Department, 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.”

The guidance distinguishes between providing religious instruction and teaching about religion, describing the former as a way of promoting a particular belief system and the latter as a regular part of the curriculum.

“Philosophical questions concerning religion, the history of religion, comparative religion, religious texts as literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries are all permissible public school subjects,” the guidance states. “Similarly, it is permissible to study religious influences on philosophy, art, music, literature, and social studies.”

For example, the Education Department says student choirs at public schools can perform music inspired by or based on religious themes or texts as part of school-sponsored events, so long as the music “is not performed as a religious exercise and is not used to promote or favor religion generally, a particular religion, or a religious belief.”

The Biden administration’s updated guidance on prayer in school comes after the Supreme Court ruled last year that a public school district couldn’t stop a football coach from praying on the 50-yard line after games. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court held that preventing someone from engaging in such prayer as a personal religious observance violated the First Amendment’s protections of free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The organization American Atheists praised the Biden administration’s guidance, arguing the measures “protect the religious freedom of families whose children are in the public school system.”

The group referenced bills in some state legislatures that would increase the role of religion in schools — such as legislation in Texas that would require public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms — decrying them as attacks on religious freedom meant to promote “hateful” ideas.

In contrast, many voices say religion needs a prominent role in public schools, arguing negative forces fill the vacuum in its absence.

“When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” New York City Mayor Eric Adamas, a Democrat, said earlier this year while speaking to religious leaders at the annual Interfaith Breakfast in Manhattan. “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.”

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