Trump to underline his support for school prayer as he courts evangelicals

By Bianca Quilantan and Juan Perez Jr.

States will be required to report instances in which the right to pray has been denied in public schools under new guidance on religious freedom rolled out Thursday by the administration, as President Donald Trump works to bolster his backing among evangelicals following calls for his removal by a leading Christian magazine.

Separately, the administration in a proposed rule is also moving to protect the rights of religious student groups at public universities, senior officials said on a call with reporters Thursday morning. "This places religious student groups on equal footing with secular student groups at public institutions of higher education,” an official said, speaking on background.

At an event on school prayer hosted in the Oval Office Thursday afternoon, Trump said, "Government must never stand between the people and God," according to pool reports. He added that "we call this the right to pray."

Trump was joined by six students as well as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. Also in attendance was Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach from Washington state who was fired after he refused to stop praying on the field.

Trump's actions ahead of the 2020 election are fulfilling a promise he made earlier this month at an "Evangelicals for Trump" event. The president told evangelical supporters he would “be taking action to safeguard students' and teachers' First Amendment rights to pray in our schools."

The Trump campaign has been angling to rev up support from religious voters critical to his political base, including Catholics and Evangelicals.

Last month, a top evangelical magazine called for Trump's removal. Mark Galli, the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, also admonished Trump’s evangelical supporters: “Remember who you are and whom you serve."

The administration is also proposing that nine federal agencies adopt a new rule protecting religious freedom, including the Justice Department, the Agency for International Development and the departments of Agriculture, Labor, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Education and Housing and Urban Development.

"President Trump is committed to making sure that people of faith, particularly children, are not subjected to illegal punishment or pressure for exercising their constitutionally protected rights,” said Joe Grogan, head of Trump’s Domestic Policy Council, on the call.

"Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions," DeVos said in a statement.

DeVos at the White House said the First Amendment exists to protect religion from government, according to pool reports.

Senior administration officials on the call with reporters said the actions are needed in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia vs. Comer, in which the the high court found it discriminatory to exclude religious institutions from certain government programs simply because they are religious.

The Education Department released a notice of the guidance in the Federal Register regarding the religious protections of prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.

A senior administration official described the proposal on prayer in K-12 schools as “fulfilling a statutory requirement to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools." It is updating guidance first issued in 2003 on a federal law.

However, the ACLU said in a statement that the guidance is "hype" and nearly identical to that issued in 2003 by former President George W. Bush. “Importantly, both the Bush guidance and the copycat document released today affirm a core constitutional protection: School officials are prohibited from imposing their faith on students," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Democratic Reps. Jared Huffman (Calif.) and Jamie Raskin (Md.), founders of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, opposed Trump's new guidance, calling it an "attack" on the Constitution.

"It’s clear that President Trump is more interested in scoring points with his base than in protecting students and the First Amendment," they said. "This guidance shows the President’s continuing disregard for the actual First Amendment rights of students, teachers, and faculty, and the President’s ongoing rhetoric and policies aimed at minority religions does nothing more than sow discord and division."

The administration would require, as a condition of funding, that local schools certify once a year to their state departments of education that they have no policy that prevents participation in constitutionally protected prayer, a senior administration official said.

Once a year, state departments of education would also have to report to the U.S. Department of Education two things: a list of local school boards that failed to make the required certification and any complaints made to that department about a local school board or school that has allegedly denied a person a right to engage in constitutionally protected prayer.

The updated guidance clarifies that state departments of education must provide a clear process for people to report complaints about a local school board or a local school denying a person the right to engage in constitutionally protected prayer. Following the report, the state department of education must report the complaints to the Education Department.

The new guidance also clarifies that if a state department of education is aware of a lawsuit against a local school or school board that alleges it has denied a person the right to engage in prayer, then it has to report it to the Department of Education.

Additionally, the guidance requires public secondary schools or public high schools to allow religious student groups to receive the same access to facilities as secular student groups for activities.

On the higher education front, the department plans to propose that as a condition of funding, a public institution of higher education cannot deny a religious group the same benefits, privileges and rights that other secular student groups have.

The Education Department wrote that it is basing the new proposed rule on the Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court decision and Trump’s 2018 executive order, the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, and the attorney general’s Memorandum on Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty.

Under the proposal, the government would revise current rules on the eligibility of faith-based entities to participate in receiving federal education dollars. They include direct grant programs, state-administered formula grant programs, and discretionary grant programs authorized under the Higher Education Act.

This would be an extra push for the Trump administration’s efforts to ease restrictions on how religious colleges and groups obtain and use federal funding. Last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos unveiled a proposed rule that would ensure colleges are not denied access to Federal Student Aid programs based on their religious affiliation.

“We propose to remove and amend regulations that would impose burdens on faith-based organizations, provide special benefits to faith-based organizations, or treat faith-based organizations and religious individuals differently than other organizations or individuals,” the rule proposed Thursday said.

Additionally, the department is zeroing in on compliance with the First Amendment for public and private higher education institutions that receive grants. Regulations would "require public institutions to comply with the First Amendment as a material condition of a grant" and "require private institutions to comply with their stated institutional policies on freedom of speech, including academic freedom, as a material condition of a grant,” the department said.

The proposed rule, which is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Friday, will be open for public comment for 30 days after its publication.

The First Liberty Institute, which represented one of the students at the event and Kennedy in separate lawsuits, commended the president's announcement, saying the revisions "ensure that the religious liberty of students in public schools is protected."

"We are also grateful to the President for his actions today protecting the rights of Americans by ending religious discrimination by state and federal agencies," the group said in a statement. "Religious Americans should be treated equally when they seek to partner with federal or state governments to provide services to vulnerable communities."

Anita Kumar contributed to this report.