In a bid to solidify his evangelical base, President Donald Trump on Thursday vowed to protect prayer in public schools and took new steps to give religious organizations easier access to federal programs.
Speaking at an Oval Office event and joined by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Trump unveiled the federal government's first updated guidance on school prayer since 2003. It details scenarios in which school officials must permit prayer and clarifies the consequences if they don't, but overall it makes few major changes.
“We will not let anyone push God from the public square,” Trump said as he introduced the new rules. “We will uphold religious liberty for all.”
Hours before the event, nine Cabinet departments proposed separate rules intended to remove barriers for religious organizations participating in federal programs. Chief among the changes is the elimination of a rule requiring religious groups to refer clients to alternative organizations upon request.
The proposals follow through on an executive order Trump signed in 2018 aiming to put religious groups on equal footing when they compete for federal grants, contracts and other types of funding.
Trump's announcements amount to a significant show of support for an evangelical constituency that has long been a vital part of his base. He has given them greater attention in recent weeks following a Christian magazine's call for his removal from office.
By rallying around school prayer, Trump is rekindling a debate that reached a crescendo in the 1980s and '90s but has fallen to the periphery of national politics. Trump argued that it needs new attention as schools increasingly go too far in restricting prayer.
“You have things happening today that 10 or 15 years ago would have been unthinkable,” he said in response to a question about his views on culture war. “Taking the word God down, taking the word Christmas out. I think we've turned that one around very good. I think we've turned both of them around very good.”
Public schools have been barred from leading students in classroom prayer since 1962, when the Supreme Court said it violated a First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a government religion. Later decisions placed restrictions around prayer at graduation ceremonies and athletic events.
Civil liberties groups say the firewall protects religious minorities and ensures equal treatment of all faiths. But many on the Christian right say courts and schools have swung too far against prayer and now interfere with the right to free religious expression.
Michael Farris, CEO and general counsel of the legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, called Trump's new school prayer guidance a “welcome step to remedy these attacks on people of faith.”
“Students across our country still find their First Amendment freedoms under attack the moment they set foot on their public school campus, even denied the freedom to pray together during free times,” Farris said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union said Trump's new guidance is “nearly identical” to the 2003 rules and reaffirms that teachers and school officials are barred from imposing religious beliefs on students.
“Importantly, the question, as always, is whether public school officials will heed this warning. If they don't, we'll be there, as always, to correct them – and if necessary, we'll see them in court,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.