Trump’s Guidance on Prayer in Schools Was “hardly worth the excitement”

See you at the pole

“See You at the Pole”: Perfectly legal

Here is Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty:

(RNS) — When President Donald Trump leaked, at a rally for evangelical supporters in Florida on Jan. 3, that his administration would issue guidance about prayer in public schools, he started a mini-firestorm, and not just among the fired-up crowd.

When the guidance was released on Thursday (Jan. 16), however, it turned out to be hardly worth the excitement. According to long-settled legal and constitutional protections for religious expression in the public schools, public school students are free to pray, wear religious clothing and accessories and talk about their beliefs. Religious groups can meet on school grounds, and teachers can teach about religion as an academic subject. Religious liberty, in short, is already a treasured value in our nation’s public schools.

So why are the president and White House staffers making inflammatory and misleading statements, claiming our constitutional rights are under attack?

It could be that the administration simply wanted to remind public schools of their constitutional duties.

Tyler is being polite.  She knows why Trump felt the need to affirm an already existing Supreme Court decision that allows students to pray in school. He wanted to use the spiritual discipline of prayer to score political points with his conservative evangelical base.  Trump is not savvy enough to think of this on his own.  One of his so-called evangelical advisers probably told him to do this.

So let’s get the facts on the proverbial table:

  1. The Supreme Court made mandatory prayer in schools unconstitutional in the 1962 Engle v. Vitale case.  Mandatory prayer is still unconstitutional.  Nothing Trump did on Thursday changed this.  I have now heard from several Trump voters who think that Trump somehow overturned Engle v. Vitale with his remarks.  He did not.  Not even the Trump Administration is saying this.  But I am sure that Trump wouldn’t mind it if some uneducated evangelicals believed that he restored mandatory school prayer.
  2. In 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed in Sante Fe ISD v. Doe that “The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment prevent the government from making any law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  By no means do these commands impose a prohibition of all religious activity in our public schools.  See, e. g., Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 508 U. S. 384, 395 (1993); Board of Ed. of Westside Community Schools (Dist. 66) v. Mergens, 496 U. S. 226 (1990); Wallace, 472 U. S., at 59. Indeed, the common purpose of the Religion Clauses “is to secure religious liberty.” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421, 430 (1962). Thus, nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday.”
  3. In other words, Trump’s so-called “guidance” merely affirmed what was already in place.
  4. Have there been cases when school districts, acting in bad faith, have failed to uphold this constitutional right to pray in schools?  Of course.  But as Binghamton University historian Adam Laats pointed out yesterday, these cases are the exception rather than the rule.
  5. In my chapter on evangelical fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I wrote, “Donald Trump himself, during his 2016 campaign, [claimed] that crime was rising when it was actually falling.  He attempted to portray refugees and undocumented immigrants as threats to the American public even though the chances that an American will die at the hands of a refugee terrorist is about one in 3.6. million; the chance of being murdered by an undocumented immigrant is one in 10.9 million per year.  One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch on fire.  Yet Trump managed to convince Americans that immigrants are “imminent threats” to their safety.”  I would love to get an idea of how many violations of Sante Fe ISD v. Doe occur each year and compare that number to the number of voluntary public school prayer groups that function everyday in full accordance with Sante Fe ISD v. Doe.

Here is Tyler again:

…some comments officials made before and in their announcement of the guidance vastly overstated the supposed problem and echoed the claims of Christian nationalism, a dangerous movement that harms both Christianity and the United States by implying that to be a good American, one must be Christian.

Christian nationalists often point to two Supreme Court cases from the 1960s, Engel v. Vitale and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, to claim that the government “banned school prayer” or “took God out of the schools.” These are harmful misrepresentations. These cases didn’t ban the free exercise of Christian worship. They banned mandatory Bible readings and prayers written by the government. It should not be controversial to oppose government-dictated religious practice.

Instead of enforcing government-mandated religion, these Supreme Court cases ensured that public school students are free to exercise their constitutionally protected religious beliefs and affirmed the proper way to handle religion in public schools.

And it’s worked: For decades, public schools across the nation have modeled how religiously diverse populations can build relationships of trust and care, respecting the unique role that religion plays in people’s lives. Like our neighbors of all faiths, we are empowered by the First Amendment to live our beliefs in the public square, which includes the public school.

Read the rest here.

Trump’s Choice of Church for His “Evangelicals for Trump” Rally Today

King JesusAs we have discussed a few times already here at the blog, Trump will be speaking at a big “Evangelicals for Trump” rally later today in Miami. The event will take place at the King Jesus Ministry Church,  evangelical megachurch.  A few things are worth noting about this church:

  • The King Jesus Ministry Church fits squarely within the Prosperity Gospel branch of American Christianity.  These Christians teach God always blessing his faithful followers with financial wealth and physical health.  Trump staffer and prominent court evangelical Paula White, the woman who claims she led Trump through a born-again experience, is the most important pro-Trump player in this movement.  As I chronicled in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, the president’s support among the prosperity gospelers is strong.  The pastor, Guillermo Maldonado, is from Honduras.  He calls himself “The Apostle.”  His wife, Ana Maldonado, is known as “The Prophetess.” Together, they run the University of the Supernatural Ministry,
  • The King Jesus Ministry Church is also a Hispanic evangelical megachurch.  Many members of the congregation are undocumented immigrants, or, to use the language of the court evangelicals, “illegals.”  Most of the evangelical leaders who will attend this event believe these undocumented workers need to be deported.  Donald Trump also believes that they should be deported.  Many of those in attendance at today’s rally cannot even vote.  As we have already seen, some of these church members fear that if they come to the rally they will be deported.  So let’s remember that two of Trump’s signature issues–the courting of evangelicals and immigration–will be at odds tonight.  (Some of you may recall Paula White’s attempt to use Romans 13 to justify the separation of children from their families at the Mexican border).
  • I don’t know how the program will unfold, but if the rally looks anything like a Pentecostal church service there is bound to be some awkwardness.  Many of the court evangelicals–including Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas–have serious theological disagreements with Pentecostal theology and worship.  And, of course, Trump never looks comfortable in these settings. Let’s see how this unfolds.
  • An atheist group is not happy about this event.  This group wants the IRS to commence an immediate investigation into King Jesus Ministry for violating the clause in the tax code prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from participating in and/or intervening in a political campaign.  It certainly seems like this group has a point.  If Pastor Maldonado is promoting Trump from the pulpit and using his authority to urge his people to attend a political rally at the church he may be in violation of the so-called Johnson Amendment.  Trump and many of his evangelical supports think that the president brought an end to the Johnson Amendment through executive order in May 2017 (Maldonado was present for the event).  This is not true.  The clause forbidding churches (and other organizations with tax exempt status) from endorsing political candidates is still on the books.  It can only be changed by Congress.  I can’t think of a more blatant violation of the Johnson Amendment than a pastor urging his congregation to attend a political rally.  I doubt anything will come of this, but it is worth noting.

For more on what to expect tonight, check out my posts here and here.  I will be on NBC News Now (live stream) with Alison Morris around 3:15pm tomorrow (January 3rd) to talk about the rally.

Mayor Pete Shows-Up at Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School Class

Carter and Pete

Carter invited Buttigieg to read scripture, but so far I have not seen anything on the what specific passage he asked the South Bend mayor to read.

Buttigieg showed-up unannounced.  Carter, perhaps in an attempt to avoid playing favorites, told the members of the class that Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, both Democratic presidential candidates, have also visited his class.

Read all about it here.

Frankly, I am not a fan of this.  As I have said multiple times at this blog in the context of conservative evangelical political activity, I don’t like bringing politics into the church in this way.  Call me a skeptic, but this move by Buttigieg looks like an attempt to win the support of progressive Christians.

The Author’s Corner with Steven Green

the third disestablishment

Steven Green is the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of History and Religious Studies at Williamette University. This interview is based on his new book, The Third Disestablishment: Church, State, and American Culture, 1940-1975 (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Third Disestablishment?

SG: Many things led me to write The Third Disestablishment.  I have written extensively about the ongoing dynamic of religious disestablishment in the 18th and 19th centuries.  My thesis has been (and continues to be) that there were various levels of disestablishment — political, institutional, legal, cultural — and that they occurred in incremental steps and at different times.  In essence, disestablishment was not perfected with the enactment of the 1st Amendment and, quite clearly, there was never a consensus on what it meant.  The Third Disestablishment brings this narrative forward to the mid-20th century where the Supreme Court formally embraced separation of church and state as the meaning of the Establishment Clause.  The book examines the cultural forces behind this embrace.  I felt that this was a story that had not been fully told before.

I also wrote the book in order to explore the background of the ongoing controversy over whether separation of church and state is/was the correct model.  The book also seeks to address why separationism arose, then fell into disfavor, at least as a legal principle.   Finally, on a personal level, in my earlier career as a 1st Amendment lawyer, I encountered several of the figures and organizations discussed in the book, though in their much later years.  This motivated me to examine the initial dynamic that led them to become involved in this issue.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Third Disestablishment?

SG: The book responds to more recent interpretations that maintain that separation of church and state became a legal and popular construct in mid-century due chiefly to residual Protestant suspicions of Catholicism.  It also maintains that even in its heyday, church-state separation was a contestable and indeterminate concept, and that its demise both legally and culturally began much earlier than has otherwise been maintained.

JF: Why do we need to read The Third Disestablishment?

SG: While numerous books have been written on the development of church and state, this book provides a fresh perspective by interweaving the cultural and legal developments of the period into  comprehensive narrative.  It examines the cultural backdrop to the Court’s adoption of its modern church-state jurisprudence.  It explores the roles of leading figures of the time, including Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, Paul Blanshard, Cardinal Francis Spellman, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, John F. Kennedy, and several consequential Supreme Court justices.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SG: I have been interested in the interaction between religion and politics/law in US history since undergraduate school.  I made the decision to enter a history PhD program after practicing law for 4 years.   Since then, I have had an amazing career that has allowed me to do legal advocacy, teaching, and scholarship in the area of religion, law, politics and history. 

JF: What is your next project?

SG: I am writing a book for Cornell University Press in its religion in public life series on–you guessed it–the development of church-state separation in American history.

JF: Thanks, Steven!