Faith-based groups opposed to excessive entanglement between church and state voiced concern over President Donald Trump’s recent pledge 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 Jan. 3 in a Miami megachurch announcing launch of a new grassroots movement called Evangelicals for Trump.
While the president did not elaborate, watchdog groups that support the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion wondered if he envisions a return to mandatory state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading ruled unconstitutional in Supreme Court decisions handed down in 1962 and 1963.
“The issue of prayer in public schools is settled law,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance. “Such religious expression is protected personal practice but prohibited when sponsored or enabled by our public institutions. Any time set aside for prayer in schools violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Rob Boston, senior adviser and editor for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that since Trump and Attorney General William Barr lack power to overturn the Supreme Court, “they’ll probably issue some sort of document or guidelines that purport to summarize the religious rights of students and staff in public schools.”
While that wouldn’t be unusual, Boston said Trump is “pathologically incapable of telling the truth and views every policy item as an instrument of partisan attack.”
In his speech at Miami at the King Jesus International Ministry, Trump repeated the claim – challenged by religious-liberty watchdog groups such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty – that his administration has succeeded in “getting rid” of the Johnson Amendment, a section of tax law that prohibits charities from using tax-exempt funds for electioneering.
Baptist Joint Committee blogger Don Byrd said while the IRS rarely takes action to enforce the ban, the Johnson Amendment “remains an important marker of protection for congregations against politicization and exploitation.”
In a blog update Jan. 8, Byrd described Trump’s comment about school prayer “troubling.” Byrd said prayer is already protected in public schools, in ways outlined in a one-page guide and other resources available on the BJC website.
“Prayer is a constitutional right, but it cannot be forced on others,” according to the Baptist Joint Committee’s guide on religious liberty in public schools. “Voluntary, student-initiated, student-led prayer is permitted if it is not disruptive, but school-sponsored prayer is not allowed.”
In his speech Jan. 3, Trump said that religion itself is “under siege” in the United States.
“As we speak, every Democrat candidate running for president is trying to punish religious believers and silence our churches and our pastors,” Trump said. “Our opponents want to shut out God from the public square so they can impose their extreme anti-religious and socialist agenda on America.”
Mentioning a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenging a school-prayer policy in a county in Tennessee, Trump said, “I love Tennessee for allowing prayer in schools and in football games, but we will not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the hard left.”
“Very soon, I’ll be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools,” the president said. “They want to take that right. Can you believe it? They want to take that right along with many other rights.”
Boston, editor of American United’s monthly membership magazine Church & State, predicted that any guidelines produced by the Trump White House “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,” Boston said. “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.”
One non-profit group said the Evangelicals for Trump rally, held at a Florida megachurch that preaches the Prosperity Gospel, may itself have been a violation of the Johnson Amendment.
“In urging congregants to come to a political rally, and in hosting the political rally, King Jesus Ministry appears to have inappropriately used its religious organization and 501(c)(3) status by intervening in a political campaign,” Rebecca Marker, legal director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote in a letter requesting an IRS investigation. “It violated IRS regulations by seemingly expressing its support for a candidate in the November 2020 presidential election.”