(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump will announce new guidance on prayer in public schools on Thursday, targeting an area in which he’s allowed scant constitutional latitude in another appeal to evangelical Christian voters.
Trump telegraphed the action during a Jan. 3 event at a Miami-area megachurch to launch an “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition, telling the audience it would be “big.” But prayer in schools is already legal, with restrictions set out in a series of court actions the president can’t unilaterally countermand.
Trump and his campaign have shown some concern about evangelical support for his re-election following a Dec. 19 editorial published by Christianity Today, founded by the evangelist Billy Graham, that called the president “immoral” and said he should be removed from office. In 2016, 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump. They mostly live in reliably Republican states in the South, but their votes will be crucial to Trump in swing states including Florida and the Rust Belt.
“We will not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the hard left,” Trump told his audience at the church event. “Very soon I will be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools.”
His audience applauded and cheered. Trump’s focus on evangelicals isn’t surprising, said Kenneth Wald, co-author of “Religion and Politics in the United States.”
“The base of the Republican party is now white evangelicals and so you want to protect your base,” Wald said.
But the law on prayer in schools “is very clear,” he said. “There’s frankly no ambiguity left on this. The state has no religious identity.” Any Trump action, he said, would be “an attempt to undermine that or, I suspect, symbolic.”
Under court rulings dating back nearly 60 years, it’s legal for students to pray in school as long as they don’t use intercom systems or disrupt school activities. Teachers can also pray, but aren’t allowed to lead or coerce students into prayer.
The legal limitations have long irked evangelicals, and may have produced a misunderstanding in the general public that prayer isn’t allowed within public schools, said Benjamin Marcus, religious liberty specialist with the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington.
“Many Americans, I think, feel like religion has been evacuated from public schools,” Marcus said. “It might be that the administration is responding to that misunderstanding and trying to clarify, or it might be that they’re trying to take advantage of that misunderstanding and claim some type of victory.”
Any action Trump takes to expand prayer in schools would likely be met with lawsuits. Courts have routinely affirmed the Constitution’s division between church and state in school prayer cases, Marcus said.
Wald said he expects Trump to issue guidelines similar to a 2017 executive order aimed at giving religious groups more latitude on political speech. The law that prohibits tax-exempt groups like churches from endorsing political candidates is called the Johnson Amendment, named after its sponsor Lyndon B. Johnson.
At the event in Miami, Trump told his audience that he’s “stopped the Johnson amendment.” The Miami church where he spoke, the King Jesus International Ministry, issued a statement ahead of his campaign-style remarks saying that it is a “non-partisan, non-political church” and that it “does not endorse any political candidates or engage in political campaigns.” It said the president’s campaign paid for and organized the event.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump weighed in on the case of a Washington state high school football coach who said he lost his job for praying. Trump called it “outrageous.” Trump also derided the Johnson amendment during his first campaign, at one point saying that “Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s passed an amendment because supposedly he was having a hard time with a church in Houston with a pastor.”
On Tuesday during a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Trump suggested Johnson may be in hell.
“He’s probably looking down, or looking up,” the president said, drawing laughter as he described the former president and Senate majority leader observing Trump’s impeachment from the afterlife. “And he is probably saying, ‘these people have gone crazy.’”
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