I wasn't planning to write this. When I heard about Trump's brave new guidance for prayer in schools, I tried to just ignore it and get on with my life. I figured that I had gotten enough of my friends mad at me for the time being and that I should just let this particular opportunity slide on by. However, I saw so many of my friends posting about how wonderful Trump was for issuing these new guidelines that I finally decided to actually read the guidelines for myself and see what all the fuss was about.
Let's get first things first, however. When I went to the Department of Education's website to read the new guidance on prayer from the most biblical President our nation has ever had, I was greeted with this shiny new pop-up:
Why don't we start with this pop-up as we look into the claims that have been made about Trump's new guidance on prayer in schools.
According to this advertisement, the Trump administration asked the USDOE to release updated religious guidelines for public schools, but if we read the actual text of those guidelines, we find a different story entirely. Trump's new guidance begins with this doozy of a legal statement:
"Section 8524(a) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act and codified at 20 U.S.C. § 7904(a), requires the Secretary to issue guidance to State educational agencies (SEAs), local educational agencies (LEAs), and the public on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools."
What this is essentially saying is that the Department of Education is required by law (a law that was first passed in 2001 and then repeated in 2015) to issue guidance to local educational agencies on prayer in schools. What this sentence does not tell you is that both the Every Student Succeeds Act and its predecessor the No Child Left Behind Act stipulated a specific time frame during which this required guidance was to be issued.
Here's what the law says:
"The Secretary shall provide and revise guidance, not later than September 1, 2002, and of every second year thereafter."
In other words, the Department of Education has been issuing guidelines about prayer in public schools on every even numbered year since 2002. These guidelines were issued in 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, and etc. all the way back to 2002. The Trump administration was simply continuing to do exactly what the law required them to do.
So what was the big deal? Trump and all of his evangelical cheerleaders are claiming that he did something new. As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos put it:
"today we remind schools of the law with respect to religious expression — something that hasn’t been done in more than 15 years."
So just what did President Trump do that hasn't been done in more than 15 years? The answer is embarrassingly simplistic. The great change that President Trump made to the Department of Education's guidance on prayer in public schools was simply that he:
1) Updated the format of the previous guidance (which had not changed since 2003) and
2) Merged the 17 year old guidance on prayer and the 22 year old guidance on religious expression into a single document.
That's it. That's the big change that Trump is bragging about, and that's what so many evangelical leaders are praising him for. Don't believe me? That's okay. I didn't expect very many of my readers to accept this, so here's your opportunity to see the facts for yourself.
Here is a link to the "new" guidance issued by the Trump administration in 2020:
And here's a link to the 2003 guidance which has been reissued every two years by every administration including the Trump administration in 2018:
And here's a link to the guidelines on religious expression that were issued in 1998 by the Clinton administration:
As you can see, Trump's amazing new guidelines are nothing more than a restatement of the 2003 guidelines merged with Clinton's 1998 guidelines. In the writing world, that would be considered plagiarism, but of course, it's just business as usual in the swamp of DC. Why would a politician invent something new when he can just tweak something old and tell his gullible voters that he did something new? That's just the way things are done in the swamp no matter which side is pretending to clean things up.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)