In May, the Department of Education issued updated guidelines on religious expression in public schools, including prayer, NPR reported.
The updated guidelines were prompted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton, in which the Court ruled that a school district could not stop a football coach from praying on the field after games.
The Supreme Court determined that Coach Joseph Kennedy’s post-game prayers were personal religious observances and by preventing him from praying, the Bremerton School District violated the free speech and free exercise of religion protections of the First Amendment.
The Education Department’s new guidelines reflect the Supreme Court ruling, informing teachers, administrators, or other school employees not to “encourage or discourage private prayer” or any other religious activity.
The guidance also makes it clear that school employees have a Constitutional right to engage in private prayer while at work. However, it warns that school employees can’t persuade, encourage, compel, or coerce their students to participate and advises school districts to take reasonable measures to ensure that teachers or coaches are not pressuring students to join in their private religious activities.
The guidance also reiterates that public school officials are not allowed to “mandate or organize” a prayer at graduation ceremonies, nor can they choose graduation speakers who offer a religious speech or prayer during graduation.
If a school does allow prayer at graduation, the prayer must be offered by a religious leader from the community and not a member of the faculty or staff. In such cases, school officials are allowed to “make appropriate, neutral disclaimers” that the words are the speaker’s and not on behalf of the school.
The updated guidelines were praised by American Atheists president Nick Fish, who said the Biden Education Department is protecting families from the hypocrisy of “Christian nationalists” who are attempting to “foster coercive religious exercise in schools.”
In a statement from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, general counsel Holly Hollman said the new guidelines do a good job protecting both students of faith “and students who don’t practice a faith.”