Trump’s base consists of a large chunk of white evangelicals who helped elect him in 2016
At his latest rally, Donald Trump is promising “big action” when it comes to prayer in schools, likely hoping to fire up the white evangelicals who helped him win the last election. He’s expected to announce “guidance” on constitutional prayer in public schools sometime today.
“We will not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the hard left,” Trump said earlier this year at a rally in Florida, which consisted of a large number of evangelical supporters at (of course) a megachurch just after the new year. “Very soon, I’ll be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools. We’re doing a big action, Attorney General Bill Barr.”
He says he’ll be reminding public schools that they risk losing federal funds if they violate their students’ right to religious expression. To honor National Religious Freedom Day, which is today, Trump is apparently hosting a group of students from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths to share their experiences of discrimination for practicing their individual religions at school.
The First Amendment covers the free exercise of religion, though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools can’t promote prayer or religious symbols. And since prayer is already allowed in schools (teachers and administrators are prohibited from directing it, however), it’s not really clear what “big action” Trump can take in regard to the issue.
White House Director of the Domestic Policy Council Joe Grogan tells NPR that existing provisions to protect school prayer have “eroded over time” and that people are hostile about religion and religious institutions.
“We’re trying across the board to invite religious institutions and people of faith back into the public square and say, ‘Look, your views are just as valid as anybody else’s,’ ” Grogan said. “‘And, by the way, they’re protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.'”
According to a 2014 Gallup poll, Christian Republicans are far more likely to support school prayer than Democrats. Overall American support for daily prayer in public school classrooms dipped from 70% in favor back in 1999 to just 61% in 2014.
The thing about enforcing school prayer is that if it’s not inclusive to all religions and gods, it’s unconstitutional. This is why it’s permitted on an individual basis to each student, and there aren’t sanctions forcing a universal prayer upon everyone regardless of their faith.
Time reports that Trump has seen major support from the white evangelicals that make up a majority of his base. He won 81% of the white evangelical vote back in 2016, and 71% of them approve of how he’s handling his presidency so far.
“Schools themselves, administrators, teachers, are supposed to be neutral when it comes to religion. They’re not to be promoting it,” Bruce Grelle, director of the Religion and Public Education Project at California State University, Chico, tells Time. “They’re not to be sponsoring or organizing religious activities or practices for students to participate in,” he says. “But students, themselves, are free to initiate and participate in various kinds of religious activities.”
Because there’s a lot of grey area surrounding the issue of prayer in school, we need to be mindful and proactive about any changes to current reinforcements, Grell warns. “That ignorance allows politicians at local as well as national levels to whip up their constituencies.”