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Protecting School Prayer

Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 2, 2020

Donald Trump said he was offering Thanks to God recently as he moved to protect school prayer — which he said to the group needed protection.

Actually, he was offering Thanks to Christian Evangelical Voters.

And no, his rules changes don’t eliminate a trail of Supreme Court decisions or state and federal laws that bar school prayer that compels all students to participate.

The Trump administration said last week that it is ordering nine federal agencies to be more aggressive at protecting school prayer and making it easier for religious groups providing social services to get federal funds. Of course, this is the opposite of an Obama-era order that had compelled religious groups to tell people that they could receive the same services from secular providers.

The Education Department will require local school districts to certify that they have no rules or regulations that conflict with students’ right to pray at school. It will also require states to notify the Education Department if there are complaints against a school district regarding the right to pray.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made promoting religious schools and education a priority since Day One. In this White House, there is much more insistence on popularizing permission to say “Merry Christmas” than interest in adapting to an increasingly diverse America.

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Actually, Trump had served divine notice of his intentions last week while offering a rambling campaign speech at an evangelical mega-church in Miami intended to ensure that evangelicals were re-signed as supporters. He felt that step necessary in the aftermath of a Christian Today editorial that had called for Trump to be ousted from the presidency for a lengthy list of un-Christian statements and deeds.

Actually, Trump has an amazing capacity to turn his interest in religiosity on and off at will when he finds it politically useful. As one who has been married three times with plenty of documented illicit trysts, as someone whose public personality depends on bullying and insults, as a president who supports taking babies from migrant parents at the border, Trump’s love for right-leaning Christian evangelist policy is near laughable. But that flavor of voter has remained a mainstay of Trump support despite his personal behaviors.

Along the way, Trump has offered a variety of lies and truth-stretchers: “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?),” according to the Americans United for Separation of Church and State blog.

Just for clarification, the “Johnson Amendment” is a 1954 law that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits, including religious organizations, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Trump did issue an executive order in 2017, directing the Treasury not to enforce the law against religious entities in cases where a non-religious entity would not have been targeted. The law has been only rarely enforced.

But what was new was a promise to bring back school prayer, though Trump offered no details. That’s what led to this week’s White House announcement. “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.”

Of course, students already have the right to pray in public schools as long as their actions don’t disrupt class and are voluntary. What is out of bounds is the type of coercive worship experience that a majority forces onto a minority against their will.

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The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that type of mandatory, state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in 1962 and 1963. 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. (The Court does have a case pending not about school prayer, but about allowing secular funds to flow to a parochial school.)

In the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the government issued guidelines dealing with religion in public schools.

Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could expand how religious schools access taxpayer funds, based on a case in Montana where the state constitution bars the practice. A family sued the state when it wanted to use a tax-credit state scholarship deduction to send their children to religious schools.

Across the country, polls have showed a general decline in formal religious affiliation. But evangelicals have remained constant through the Trump years, both in numbers and in general political support for Trump.

Trump has returned the favor, bending policy wherever possible to keep evangelical goals prime.

In one curious recent tweet, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow condemned schools for practicing “Buddhist Meditation,” which he said was different than “Christian meditation.” Here is the tweet: “Despite what some want you to believe, there’s a difference between #Buddhist meditation & #Christian meditation. They are not the same, and there is no reason why our children should be forced to participate in Buddhist-based mindfulness in the classroom.”

At the end of the day, there was no White House proposed change in law, just a photo-op change in attitude.

If you want more, apparently you need to pray harder.

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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