President Donald Trump on Friday gave a rambling campaign speech at an evangelical mega-church in Miami to kick off the launch of Evangelicals for Trump. The speech was the usual Trump farrago of hysteria, bombast and outright lies.
Trump claimed he has done away with the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that protects the integrity of houses of worship and nonprofits by keeping them out of partisan politics. (He didn’t.) He asserted that everyone was afraid to say “Merry Christmas” until he came along (nonsense), and now everyone is saying it and implied that his 2016 victory was ordained by God (blaspheme much?).
Much of the speech was recycled from other talks Trump has given to religious groups, but there was one alarming new item: Trump said he’s going to take action soon to expand prayer in public schools.
“Very soon I’ll be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools,” Trump said. “They want to take that right along with many other ones.”
He implied that Attorney General William Barr would be involved in this effort, although Trump didn’t provide any other details.
There are several problems here: For starters, students already have the right to pray in public schools as long as their actions don’t disrupt class and are voluntary. When Trump’s Christian nationalist fan base talks about “school prayer,” they usually mean some type of coercive worship experience that a majority forces onto a minority against their will.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that type of mandatory, state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in 1962 and ’63. Religious Right groups have tried over the years to bring these coercive practices back by proposing school prayer amendments to the Constitution. All have failed.
So what are Trump and Barr up to here? Since they don’t have the power to overturn the Supreme Court, they’ll probably issue some sort of document or guidelines that purport to summarize that the religious rights of students and staff in public schools.
That alone wouldn’t be unusual. Previous administrations, notably during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, issued guidelines dealing with religion in public schools. While Americans United might have quibbled with some of the wording in these documents, in the main they were pretty accurate.
The problem with Trump is that he’s pathologically incapable of telling the truth and views every policy item as an instrument of partisan attack. And Barr is a known opponent of secular government who has in the past blamed a lack of religiosity on a host of social ills. Thus, any guidelines this administration produces will likely either be littered with twisted interpretations of the law or, even if they are accurate, Trump will start boasting that he “brought prayer back to schools” or some such nonsense – just as he claims to have wiped out the Johnson Amendment when he didn’t – and spawn confusion.
Inevitably, some teachers or staff members in public schools will get the idea that they can do things that they can’t. Trump and Barr’s bum advice or distortions of the law will get them sued. And when these school officials lose in court, Trump and Barr won’t be there to bail them out.
Be assured that Americans United will be watching these developments very closely. If Trump administration offers misleading advice on religion and public schools, we’ll be there to set the record straight and ensure our public schools remain inclusive and welcoming for all students, regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs. Sign up for our emails so you can stay informed about these developments.