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Opinion

Editorial: Trump’s ‘religious freedom’ initiative is mostly a rehash of current law — yet still finds a way to be troubling

President Trump
President Trump has announced a initiative to protect religious liberty, including in schools.
(Jabin Botsford / Washington Post)

Not for the first time, President Trump is trying to score political points with his evangelical supporters by unveiling a “religious freedom” initiative that suggests, cynically, that Christianity in America is under sustained attack and that the federal government must come to its rescue. Needless to say, that is not the case.

The initiative unveiled on Thursday is best seen not as a considered response to a real problem but as a political statement in which the president is aligning himself with Christian conservatives whose support could be essential to his 2020 reelection. Its centerpiece is a “guidance” letter from the Department of Education reminding public schools that they must certify that they allow students to engage in “constitutionally protected prayer.” That’s a reference to voluntary prayer, not the official prayers that were outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

In other words, the heart of this initiative is a reaffirmation of existing law. Trump isn’t the first president to put schools on notice that they must respect religious expression by their students. Substantially similar guidance was issued by the Clinton administration in 1995. But Trump is a past master of repackaging existing law involving religious freedom to make it appear that he is delivering to his religious supporters.

He did that in 2017 when, with great fanfare, he issued an order that supposedly would have stopped the Internal Revenue Service from interfering with churches that wanted to engage in politics. In fact, the rule did not repeal a congressional ban on tax-exempt churches from endorsing candidates. All it did was direct the IRS to evaluate political expression by religious nonprofits using the same criteria it employs for judging expression by nonreligious tax-exempt groups.

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The fact that Trump’s initiatives on religious liberty are mostly hype doesn’t seem to bother his supporters in conservative Christian circles. Reacting to the Trump’s latest initiative, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council gushed: “With this and his other announced rules, President Trump is continuing the drumbeat of religious freedom and the long march toward restoring religious freedom in the public square.”

Perkins also praised Trump for “taking on the bullies that have been intimidating school officials and bullying students with their often baseless lawsuits.” He complained that for years “we’ve watched secularist’s pressure school administrators into telling students that they can’t pray, read their Bibles, or talk about their faith in class.”

There is a grain of truth in this. Some skittish school administrators, fearful of lawsuits or just averse to controversy, may be tempted to stifle religious expression by students that the courts have upheld as constitutionally protected. Some may even wrongly believe that Supreme Court’s decisions against official prayer in public schools also outlawed voluntary prayer and religious activity.

The federal government should be vigilant about such overreaction, but that doesn’t mean infringements on students’ religious rights are widespread. Yet Trump has a political interest in exaggerating the threat to religious freedom — particularly the religious freedom of Christians — and not only in the school context. His suggestion that people of faith have been muzzled is akin to his absurd assertion that Americans weren’t saying “Merry Christmas” (a problem he says his election has remedied).

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In addition to the directive on school prayer, the administration announced that it would propose regulations to ensure that religious social-service agencies are treated on an equal basis with secular agencies not only by the federal government but by states that receive federal funds and then make their own grants.

The principle of equal treatment sounds reasonable. As the administration points out, the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the state of Missouri couldn’t use the separation of church and state as a justification to exclude a religious school from a grant program that subsidized the resurfacing of playgrounds. But the scope of that decision — whether, for example, it requires states to provide tax credits to students at religious schools — remains unclear.

More troubling is the administration’s proposal to revoke an Obama administration order that required religious social-service providers such as drug rehabilitation centers to advise potential clients that services were also provided by secular agencies. Repealing this rule actually undermines religious freedom, by keeping information from clients who might have religious objections to a particular faith-based agency’s teachings.

Religious freedom is a vital part of the culture of this country as well as a constitutional command. The federal government should ensure that it is protected, including in public schools. But it shouldn’t become a political weapon to be wielded for electoral advantage.


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