Illinois State Board of Education Has Process Whereby Individuals Can Report Violations of Their Right to Pray in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to show neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer.  Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer in their official capacities, students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”[1]

For example, “nothing in the Constitution . . . prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday,”[2] and students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech.  Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics.

The Department of Education is required by law to issue guidance regarding the constitutionally protected right to pray in public elementary and secondary schools and to revise this guidance every two years.[3]  On January 16, 2020, the Department revised the guidance for the first time since 2003.  The guidance explains that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 requires that as a condition of receiving funds, local educational agencies (LEA) must certify in writing to their state educational agencies (SEA) that the LEA has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.

A covered LEA must provide this certification to the SEA by October 1.  There is no specific federal form for the certification.  By November 1, each SEA must send to the Secretary a list of those LEAs that have not filed the required certification or that have been the subject of a complaint to the SEA alleging a violation of the right to constitutionally protected prayer in public schools.  Furthermore, the 2020 Guidance clarifies that the SEA must provide a process for filing a complaint against an LEA that allegedly denies a person, including a student or employee, the right to participate in constitutionally protected prayer.

In response, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) created a helpful website with resources for families and a complaint mechanism for individuals who believe their right to constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools has been violated.  Specifically, there is a standardized protected prayer complaint form and dedicated email address ( for receipt of complaints.  The Department commends the ISBE for taking seriously this fundamental right.  The Department notes that SEAs are not required to adopt ISBE’s process, but that ISBE’s process represents one way in which SEAs may comply with their obligations under Section 8524(b) of the ESEA.

[1] Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).

[2] Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 313 (2000).

[3] 20 U.S.C. § 7904(a).


Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently announced that religious organizations may apply for federal money to open charter schools through the Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Program (CSP). She said, “the Department of Education will no longer discriminate and will allow for and welcome religiously affiliated applicants for the CSP.”

She made the announcement to applause on October 26, 2020, at a forum in Louisville, Kentucky. The forum was organized by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions (BIPPS) and the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition (K-PAC) to discuss education reform, including school choice, in response to the low achievement rates in Jefferson County Public Schools and the increasing achievement gaps between black and white students within the largest school district in Kentucky.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act defines “charter school” as a “public school” that is “exempt from significant State or local rules that inhibit the flexible operation and management of public schools,” but that is nonetheless “operated under public supervision and direction.” 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2)(A) and (B). The ESEA also states no charter school may be “affiliated” with any “sectarian school or religious institution.” 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2)(E).

In the wake of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017), the Secretary requested the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to examine 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2)(E) for its constitutionality. In Trinity Lutheran, the Supreme Court held that “the Free Exercise Clause protects against indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” OLC opined that 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2)(E)’s prohibition against charter schools affiliating with a “sectarian school or religious institution” is unconstitutional pursuant to Trinity Lutheran, explaining that “forbidding charter schools under the program from affiliating with religious organizations discriminates on the basis of religious status.” During the October Kentucky event, the Secretary also cited the recent Supreme Court decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, where Chief Justice Roberts stated in the majority opinion that “we have repeatedly held that the Establishment Clause is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”

It is one thing for the CSP to require the curriculum of a charter school to be nonsectarian. It is something else entirely to discriminate against an institution that wants to establish a charter school using CSP funds simply because of its religious status. The Federal Constitution does not permit such a violation of religious freedom, and charter schools may affiliate with churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions that wish to set up and operate charter schools under the CSP. As the Secretary highlighted in her remarks, “according to a recent RealClear survey, three out of four families with children in public schools want their education dollars to follow their children to wherever they go to learn.” For America’s students and their families, removing unconstitutional barriers is a step in the right direction.

By: Jacqueline Gonzalez, Director of Outreach


Administration warns of China’s Influence in American schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Department of State Secretary Mike Pompeo sent joint letters to both the chief state school officers and the presidents of American institutions of higher education (and their affiliates) on October 9, 2020 warning of the dangers to academic freedom posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to K-12 schools and institutions of higher education (IHE’s).

The PRC abuses human rights on a massive scale. As Secretary DeVos said in her statement marking the 25th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for the mass abortion of millions of baby girls since 1995 and have mandated forced abortion, sterilization, and birth control on the Muslim Uyghur populations. In addition, it has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong and oppressed ethnic minorities throughout China.

In the United States, the PRC is supporting hundreds of K-12 “Confucius Classrooms” for propaganda activities. While the program is billed as a way to learn Chinese language and culture, its teachers are often “vetted” and “paid” by the Communist Party itself. Unsurprisingly, students have reported that teachers ignore subjects that might paint the PRC in a negative light. Furthermore, the PRC has hosted U.S. school administrators in Beijing, and there is evidence that teachers must agree to follow Chinese law while teaching in Confucius Classrooms in the U.S.

The situation in higher education is also very serious. The Chinese Communist Party is deeply entangled with U.S. based colleges and universities. Chinese students report being subjected to surveillance and intimidation. IHEs have failed to report foreign money under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, leaving the Department and the public in the dark about more than $6.5 billion in funds from China and other sources. The Department of Education held an event on October 20, 2020, where a new report was unveiled detailing this massive failure, and featuring a speech (minute 10:00) by a student who suffered Communist imprisonment and “reeducation” while her school, the University of Washington, stayed silent.

As the Secretaries said, “While Americans may differ on many issues, threats to our freedoms unite us all. We look forward to working together to uphold our values and advance the goal of education excellence for the next generation of Americans.”

By Nick Bell, Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives

It Feels So Good to Be in School

My high school biology classroom looks quite different from last year on this warm September day. My students are seated six feet apart, we are wearing masks, the windows are open, and everyone has their own set of supplies. Even though I am an experienced teacher, I feel a little awkward as we begin our day. My students’ facial expressions are a mystery. I have to ask a student to repeat his question because his voice is a little muffled. I see a look of uncertainty as a student realizes that she has forgotten her supplies. I assure her that she can borrow some from me. We will sanitize them before and after she uses them. It is a challenging situation for students, parents, and educators as we return to school safely. We will keep getting better at this. When I ask students to share one fun thing they did over the weekend, the room erupts with stories of visiting the beach, seeing family, pet projects, and special moments. I see my students smiling under their masks. It feels so good to be in school.

As I introduce today’s class challenge — to build a prototype of a seed that can be dispersed by the wind — I deliver the materials to each student and students open the Google Slides from their laptops so that they can record and share their data. Although students are socially distanced, I am able to assign them to groups, albeit a little farther away than usual. I ask students to brainstorm and then design their own prototype to ensure that all students are engaged. As they build their prototypes, test them, and make improvements, I disinfect supplies and answer questions. I notice that students are completely absorbed in improving the ability of their seed to stay aloft. The room is alive with energy and purpose. It feels so good to be in school.

Students and teachers alike thrive in an environment of interaction, whether it is discussing an issue, solving a problem together, or working on a project collaboratively. To accommodate social distancing as well as my students working remotely, I have replaced my lectures with shorter screencasts that all of my students can view either at school or at home. I have swapped out my white board with an online bulletin board (Padlet) where students share their ideas or lab data. My students at home can connect with my in-school students during class time while performing a lab using Zoom or Google Meet. Yes, school is very different this year and can be little awkward or uncomfortable at times. Some students need to work independently from home, some are hybrid, and some are in the school building every day. As unique as our individual experiences may be, we are united in the common goal of education. We will keep getting better at this. It feels so good to be in school.

Lori Christerson, Ph. D.

Science Teacher

Bishop Brady High School

Concord, NH

Cross-posted from the Homeroom Blog.

The Department is helping Americans understand the importance of foreign money to American colleges and universities

The pursuit of scientific and technological innovation by American higher education has created economic growth, an improved quality of life, and enhanced security.  Unfortunately, in recent years, certain foreign actors have taken steps to influence American colleges and universities in ways that do not benefit the United States by making to schools large and substantial gifts and contributions.

To prevent undue influence from hostile foreign actors, Congress has directed American colleges and universities to comply with Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, which requires institutions to report to the Department of Education any gifts and contracts from foreign sources exceeding $250,000 in a calendar year.  Unfortunately, recent investigations by the Department demonstrate that many institutions have failed to comply with this easily understandable statutory requirement, and the Department is taking measures to require schools to comply in the face of possible enforcement action by the Attorney General of the United States.

Preliminary investigations by the Department have discovered that at least six prominent universities have failed to report in excess of $1.3 billion from foreign sources, including from China, Qatar, and Russia.  Those same investigations have revealed other disturbing connections between China and American universities.  One university received research funding from a Chinese multinational conglomerate to develop new algorithms for crowd surveillance.  Another school had multiple contracts with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China.  Five of the six investigated universities had multiple contracts with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company with a history of hostility to the U.S.

The Department has other cases pending, including an investigation into the University of Texas for its failure to report qualifying contracts, faculty exchanges, and other valuable transfers of technology with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the maximum biocontainment laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Since July of 2019, universities have revealed more than $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed foreign source gifts and contracts.  Institutions have anonymized the identities of the donors of at least $1.14 billion in funds from China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Russia.

To combat underreporting and to ease reporting burdens for schools, Secretary DeVos has directed the Department to create a modern and robust information collections system to capture contributions to schools by foreign sources, and the Department recently announced a new reporting portal for universities.  Institutions must file any Section 117 reports using this portal on or before July 31, 2020.

American’s universities have a legal and moral duty to provide transparency regarding foreign sources of influence.  The Department’s Section 117 investigations have shown the importance of foreign money to American institutions of higher education so that Americans may understand these transactions and decide whether this activity is in the best interest of the United States.

By Nick Bell, Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives

Multiple Pathways to Success: Supporting Foster and Homeless Students

On Thursday, June 28th, the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives (CFOI) and Federal Student Aid (FSA) co-hosted a webinar for faith and community leaders, as well as other caring adults, to provide information on assisting foster and homeless students with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Faith and community leaders are in direct contact with many foster and homeless students, and this webinar was the first in a series to provide them with resources to help their communities. Fred Stennis, the Outreach Team Coordinator at FSA, and Dr. Andrea Ramirez, the Acting Director of CFOI, discussed the process for students applying for federal student aid, how faith and community leaders can help guide students through this process and dispelled some of the myths about the FAFSA and FSA.

The purpose of this webinar was to help foster and homeless students who wish to pursue higher education. Dr. Ramirez introduced the topic with information regarding the nation’s foster and homeless student population. She then shared the U.S. Department of Education’s goal of providing students with multiple pathways to success; higher education is one such pathway. Fred Stennis then gave attendees information on resources that FSA provides to students, including directions for filling out FAFSA.

FSA gives out $120 billion to more than 13 million students every year, through grants, loans, and work-study programs. Foster and homeless youth face unique challenges when pursuing higher education, but this webinar explained how they are treated equally when filling out the FAFSA. Caring adults who wish to help foster and homeless students should encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.

Some key takeaways from this webinar were:

  • All U.S. citizens are eligible to apply for Federal Student Aid, including foster and homeless students.
  • FAFSA opens on October 1st.Check for deadlines from FSA, state agencies, colleges, and other financial aid and scholarship opportunities.
  • Complete the FAFSA with information as of the date of submission. (Applicants do not need to update the application after submission, but can re-submit the form if necessary.)
  • Applicants do not need to provide a home address to fill out the FAFSA. Applicants will be required to provide an address where they can reliably receive mail. This can be the address of any caring adult in their life.
  • Applicants should include up to 10 schools on the FAFSA to compare their aid options from schools they’re considering.

For more information on this webinar, for a copy of the presentation.

For more information on FAFSA and other FSA resources, FSA holds monthly webinars, has tutorial videos on their YouTube channel and will answer questions via email or web chat on their website,, or by phone at 1-800-4FED-AID.

CFOI will be hosting another webinar on August 23rd, 2018, from 1-2:00pm (ET), with guest speakers from FSA and the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), to provide faith and community leaders with resources to aid citizens returning from the prison system as they navigate FAFSA and career, technical and apprenticeship opportunities. Registration will be available soon. To be notified when registration is available, and to learn more about our work at the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, email and request to receive our center’s highlights.


The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge Reflection


The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge

Part of a reflection series presented by the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships


The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge is an initiative of the White House with support from the Department of Education, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Corporation for National and Community Service.


For many, college years include experiences that challenge long held assumptions about the world and our place in it. Part of that challenge can include building bridges of understanding alongside rising leaders from different religious and non-religious traditions through service. Based on the recommendation of the inaugural President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, President Obama established the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which brings together students and educators, colleges and universities, faith and community organizations, and others to strengthen campuses and communities through the power of faith and service.


Now in its sixth year, more than 500 schools have been or are currently involved in the challenge. Currently 12 percent of American college students who attend schools with more than 1,000 students are attending a participating school. This includes schools in 43 states, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia.


The challenge has not been restricted to one model of higher education. Instead it has flourished in a variety of settings including large research universities, four-year colleges, tribal colleges, career colleges, and historically black colleges and universities. Each institution provides a unique perspective on what it means to have an interfaith engagement component to community service. The make-up of the student body, the resources of the institution and faculty, the nature of the community, and the traditions of the school have resulted in unique programs at each school.pic1


In 2015, educators and students from around the world were invited to join the conversation about interfaith service. As a result, more than 70 people from 24 countries participated in the Fifth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge gathering. This tradition continued into the Sixth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge where we had 60 international guests representing 31 countries joining the nearly 600 faculty, staff, students, and college presidents at Gallaudet University.


The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge provides a platform though which service connects people from different religious and non-religious back-grounds to tackle community challenges together. American colleges, community colleges, and universities have often been at the forefront of solving our nation’s greatest challenges. The White House is calling on higher education to make the vision for interfaith cooperation a reality on campuses across the country.

Belief, Behavior and Belonging

oct-19On Wednesday, Ocotober 20th, The Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (CFBNP) participated in the State Department’s (STATE) Office of Religion and Global Affairs Religious Literacy, Public Policy and American Schools brown bag event in The Ralph Bunche Library. The event included a panel moderated by Mariam Kaldas (STATE) with panelists Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell (CFBNP) and Benjamin Marcus (Newseum Fellow). Brenda gave remarks on the work of the Department of Education Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and Ben presented his research from his chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Religion and America Education. Some of the topics discussed were practicing religious literacy, religious identity formation and how to work with religious communities in conflict settings.

In Ben’s research he highlighted how we all have different understandings of faith and religion. For instance, if a group of people are asked the definition of religion, there would be a myriad of different definitions and one may even say it is undefinable. Religious literacy does not mean you can define every religion, but rather “understand and use the religious terms, symbols, images, beliefs, practices, scriptures, heroes, themes, and stories that are employed in American public life.”

Ben’s research delves further into religious identity and formation and perception of religion. He uses a framework called the “Three B’s”: Belief, Behavior and Belonging to explain how one develops his or her religious identity.

When engaging conflict communities, there are a few steps to address religious identity:

  1. Listen and ask “What does your religion mean to you?”
  2. Determine what aspect of religious identity (Belief, Behavior, Belonging), if any, fuels the tension.
  3. Look for common ground, not necessarily talking about scripture, but what they care about.

Through Brenda’s remarks and Ben’s research, the audience was able to engage in an introspective conversation on religious literacy. Brenda reinforced the value of convening and bringing people together. Ben was able to build upon that foundation by discussing practices to humbly address differences and understand the history behind various religious identities. Finally, questions on topics such as separation of church and state, populism and religion, and secularism were discussed.

It was an informative and reflective event that helped the participants gain a further understanding and direction on discussing religious literacy!

Grants, Grants, Grants!

fbo-webinarOn Wednesday, October 05, 2016, The Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships along with Dr. Sylvia Lyles of the Office of Academic Improvement (OAI) held a webinar to discuss Applying for US Department of Education Grants. The webinar was in response to requests from the Hampton Ministers’ Conference and other listening sessions. There were over 400 participants eager to learn more about how to apply for Department of Education grants.

Following an introduction and welcome from Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Dr. Lyles gave an overview of one of OAI’s functions; managing 30 grant programs with a combined total of over 4 billion dollars. Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) and Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) are encouraged to apply for grants and to begin the process as early as possible. During her overview of the grant application process, Dr. Lyles focused on the 21st Century Community Learning Center’s (CCLC) Grant. Interested organizations should get in touch with their state 21st CCLC contact and learn more on the CCLC website.

Tiffany Ways, HUB Director of The University Church in Toledo, Ohio and Jen Russo, Program Assistant for the Hope After School Program, in Frederick, Maryland provided were voices from the field. They shared some of their experiences as CLCC grantees. Successful grantees must have effective partnerships.

Key components of effective partnerships:

  • Multifaceted partner engagement
  • Consistent communication
  • Building a relationship of trust
  • Working collaboratively through partner administrator and/or staff transitions
  • Overcoming expectation/ execution shortfalls
  • Celebration of successes

This webinar is just our first step on this journey to increase the participation of FBOs and CBOs in the grant process at the U.S. Department of Education.

Stay tuned!