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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 18, 2020

No, Trump didn’t sign a bill returning prayer to schools

If Your Time is short

  • President Donald Trump announced guidance for school prayer in January.

  • Trump’s guidance is similar to 2003 guidance from President George W. Bush.

  • Government-sponsored prayer in public schools has been unconstitutional for decades.

After President Donald Trump made an announcement about school prayer in January, a video on Facebook exaggerated the impact of his actions.

"President Trump signs bill returning prayer in schools," said the headline of one video by Eyes Open Media.

The narrator said that prayer in school is no longer banned. "Donald Trump just put prayer back in schools," the narrator said.

The video is misleading because Trump’s announcement doesn’t change the status quo. Since prayer wasn’t banned at schools before Trump’s announcement, it’s not possible that he returned prayer to schools.

The story was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

On National Religious Freedom Day, Jan. 16, 2020, Trump announced constitutional guidance on school prayer, which was posted by the U.S. Education Department. The video called the document a "bill," which it isn’t.  A bill would require congressional action.

Trump said he was "announcing historic steps to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools. So you have the right to pray."

This guidance was not "historic," as there was a similar one issued in 2003 during President George W. Bush’s tenure. Both guidance documents explain that students may pray when not engaged in school activities or instruction and that teachers in their official capacities can’t encourage or discourage prayer, or actively participate in prayer with students. 

We sent a copy of the 2003 and 2020 guidance documents to Richard Layton, associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Layton found no significant shift in the legal terrain. He found modest differences, most notably that the 2020 document expands on reporting requirements related to complaints.

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"This seems to be potentially a mechanism that will support more aggressive intervention into state and local educational policies/practices," he said. "Nevertheless, the main purpose of the new guidelines seems to be to advertise to Christian communities that the administration will advocate for them."

The ACLU concluded that both the 2003 and 2020 guidance documents "affirm a core constitutional protection: School officials are prohibited from imposing their faith on students."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation concluded that the guidance "reiterates the state of law."

To be clear, religion has not been banned from public schools. In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored or state-organized prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. But the decision does not prohibit prayer or religious expression at school. 

RELATED FACT-CHECK: Rafael Cruz, father of Ted Cruz, says 'everybody prayed,' read Bible at schools prior to 1962

Our ruling

A video on Facebook said, "President Trump signs bill returning prayer in schools."

Trump didn’t sign a bill; his administration issued a guidance. But that guidance didn’t return prayer to schools. It's nearly the same as a 2003 guidance that explains when students can pray at school of their own initiative. For decades, school-sponsored prayer has been banned, but that doesn’t ban religious expression at schools entirely.

The overall message about Trump and school prayer in this video is misleading. We rate this statement Mostly False.

 

Our Sources

White House, Remarks by President Trump on the Announcement of Guidance on Constitutional Prayer in Public Schools, Jan. 16, 2020

U.S. Department of Education, Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, January 16, 2020

U.S. Department of Education, Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, Feb. 7, 2003

AP, Trump boosts school prayer, faith groups as he rallies base, Jan. 16, 2020

NPR, Trump Defends School Prayer. Critics Say He's Got It All Wrong, Jan. 16, 2020

Freedom from Religion Foundation, Trump school prayer guidance inadequate, other regs worrisome, Jan. 16, 2020

Snopes, Did President Trump ‘Return Prayer’ to Public Schools? Jan. 22, 2020

PolitiFact, Rafael Cruz, father of Ted Cruz, says 'everybody prayed,' read Bible at schools prior to 1962, Aug. 10, 2015

Email interview, Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Feb. 11, 2020

Email interview with Richard Layton, associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Feb. 11, 2020

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No, Trump didn’t sign a bill returning prayer to schools

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