For over 25 years, Alliance Defending Freedom has been fighting to protect the freedom of all Americans to live and work according to their faith. In commemoration of Religious Freedom Day last week, President Donald Trump announced an important step forward in upholding this first freedom.
On January 16, President Donald Trump made a proclamation celebrating Religious Freedom Day. Along with it, his administration released the package of proposed rules and guidance.
The guidance was issued through several federal agencies and provides information on legal protections for prayer and other religious expression in public schools. It also makes clear that faith-based groups do not lose their right to autonomy, expression, religious character, or independence from the government merely because they receive a federal grant.
The guidance is yet another example of the administration’s commitment to protect and rightly interpret the First Amendment, and the courage of Alliance Defending Freedom clients helped set the foundation for the latest policy advances.
Let’s take a look.
ADF client Chase Windebank was in the room with President Trump when he issued the guidance.
When Chase Windebank was a high school student at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs, he began a small prayer gathering with his fellow students. The school had a free-time period during which Chase led a time of prayer, worship, and discussion for three years. However, in the fall of 2014, school officials suddenly shut down the prayer gathering, citing their own misguided understanding of the “separation of church and state.”
ADF stepped in and filed a federal complaint against Colorado’s Academy District #20, and soon after, the school relented and allowed the students to meet and pray once again during school hours.
Little did Chase know at the time, his brave stand for religious freedom would lead to an invitation to the Oval Office.
ADF Senior Vice President for U.S. Legal Advocacy Kristen Waggoner tells the story at The Washington Times:
If you’re into comeback stories, you’ll love Chase Windebank’s.
Just a few short years ago, Chase had to go to court against his high school just to host a student-led prayer group during a free time in the school day. Last Thursday, Chase was in the Oval Office with Donald Trump as the president took action to assure that the freedom Chase had to ask a court to reaffirm applies to every public school student in the nation.
That’s the good news about the president’s suite of regulatory changes and guidance — rolled out on National Religious Freedom Day — all aimed at ensuring that religious freedom remains protected across the nation. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Chase, the president announced updated guidelines on prayer and religious expression that every public school must certify compliance with. These ensure that students’ First Amendment rights don’t vanish when they set foot on school property.
Waggoner also echoed the importance of correctly interpreting the Establishment Clause, bringing up another ADF case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, that influenced President Trump’s guidance:
Citing the misguided notion of “separation of church and state” — a concept found nowhere in the U.S. Constitution and often misconstrued to keep religion out of the government rather than vice-versa — state and federal officials have often treated people of faith as second-class citizens.
In Missouri, for example, the state rejected a religious preschool from a program that provided reimbursement grants to purchase tire scraps used to make children’s playgrounds safer. Out of the 44 nonprofits that applied for the playground surface grant, the school Trinity Lutheran was ranked fifth in meeting the qualifications. But the preschool was denied solely because it is run by a church.
A skinned knee hurts just as much on the playground of a religious school as it does on the playground of a secular school, but the state of Missouri wouldn’t budge from its position.
That led to a challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which I and my colleagues at Alliance Defending Freedom litigated. By a 7-2 majority, the court ruled in Trinity Lutheran’s favor. The decision affirmed that a state cannot deny “a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character” and rightly said that such discrimination is “odious to our Constitution … and cannot stand.”
The Trump administration’s actions are based squarely on U.S. Supreme Court precedent and do not represent an effort to make new law. Rather, the president is using the lawful power of his office to ensure that public schools, state governments, and federal agencies all obey the clearly established standards of the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment.
Many school officials and other government operatives appear to believe that the only relevant provision in the First Amendment is the Establishment Clause, which has been reduced to the misleading slogan of “separation of church and state.”
The Establishment Clause does not prohibit students or other private individuals from living out their faith or engaging in personal religious expression — even when they are on government property. Rather, this clause places substantial limits on what the government itself can do in either promoting or disparaging religion. Yes, it’s supposed to work both ways.
In his proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, President Trump stated, “Our Founders entrusted the American people with a responsibility to protect religious liberty so that our Nation may stand as a bright beacon for the rest of the world.”
ADF clients like Chase and Trinity Lutheran—not to mention Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman (just to name a few!)—have stood out as the brightest of beacons defending the freedom of all Americans.
The Trump administration’s actions to ensure religious liberty are also a breath of fresh air to those called to defend it. As Farris puts it, “Religious freedom is the headwater of all freedoms, and we’re grateful that President Trump and his administration have taken numerous opportunities to acknowledge and protect it for all people and organizations of faith.”