Washington • “It’s not going to happen anymore,” President Donald Trump promised Utah’s William McLeod on Thursday after the 10-year-old shared his story of being forced by his teacher to clean his forehead on Ash Wednesday when many Catholics — William included — wear an ash mark at the dawn of Lent.
William, of Bountiful, joined students from across the country at the White House in telling stories of discrimination they said they felt because of their religious beliefs as Trump unveiled plans across several federal agencies to strengthen protections for prayer at schools and lessening of restrictions for faith-based groups.
The Utah student, who switched from Valley View Elementary School in Bountiful to St. Olaf’s Catholic School after the incident earlier this year, thanked the president for protecting students who are religious.
“Well, it’s not going to be happening anymore. OK?” Trump said.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” William responded, proudly wearing a fleece vest with the crest of his new school.
It’s unclear how any move the president made with his announcement would have affected William’s situation, which the student noted came about because he was the only — or maybe one of two — Catholics in the elementary school, which included mostly students and teachers who are members of state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Trump’s directive would end rules put in place by President Barack Obama that required faith-based social good organizations to inform those receiving taxpayer-subsidized services that there were secular options as well.
It also orders the Department of Education to offer guidance to school districts to ensure there are no rules against a student’s right to pray and requires states to report any complaints by students about that right. The president’s plan doesn’t mention the wearing of religious symbols, like donning an ash cross on Ash Wednesday.
Courts have ruled that students are free to pray in school as long as it is not organized by teachers or administrators.
Trump, who in his reelection efforts has been courting the evangelical vote, said that there was an ongoing and increasing “cultural war” against people of faith.
“You have a side that believes so strongly in prayer, and they’re being restricted, and it’s getting worse and worse,” Trump said. “You have things happening today that 10 or 15 years ago would have been unthinkable: ... Taking the word 'God' down, taking the word 'Christmas' out. You know, I think we’ve turned that one around very good. I think we’ve turned both of them around very good. But we’re not going to let it happen. We’re never going to let that happen.”
William, whom Education Secretary Betsy DeVos mistakenly called Michael and Trump called Jeff, said after the Oval Office event that he was “shocked and nervous” to be so close to the president but that he was humbled to be there.
“It was an epic experience,” William said. “Like not everyone gets to step into the grounds of the Oval Office and shake the president’s hand. It was really cool.”
William said he hoped the president’s actions would help protect students like himself against discrimination.
His grandmother, Karen Fisher, who accompanied William to the White House, said it was “breathtaking” to be so close to the president, whom she said her family “loved” and supported.
“I was impressed,” she said. “And everything he said, I agree with 100 percent.”
Fisher added that the silver lining of her grandson’s situation was that his new Catholic school was glad to welcome him, and she hopes that the news reports educated people more about respecting other faiths.
“I’m hoping from what he went through — and it was publicized quite a bit — that no other child or an adult would have to go through that again,” she said. “That was pretty hard on him.”