WASHINGTON (CN) — Taking steps to shore up his poll numbers with the religious right, President Donald Trump marked the start of his Senate impeachment trial by pushing his 2018 executive order on school prayer into effect Thursday.
“That’s a very important and powerful right,” Trump said in a speech at the oval office. “There’s nothing more important than that I would say.”
Playing to the evangelical Christian base that helped elect him in 2016 has been a renewed focus for Trump since his impeachment last month in the House. Two weeks ago, following the U.S.-ordered airstrike that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Trump hosted an event held at El Rey Jesús church in Miami where he announced the formation of a coalition called “Evangelicals for Trump.”
Jan. 16 has been historically recognized as National Religious Freedom Day, commemorating the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on this day 1786.
By midday today, the Justice Department, the Department of Education and seven other federal agencies proposed rules in line with Trump’s 2018 executive order for providers of religious social services to have better federal funding access.
The new rules from the Education Department require public school districts to verify that they don’t infringe upon teachers’ or students’ rights to pray at school. States must now also report any complaints about school districts violating such rights, although school districts accused of other types of discrimination face no such requirement.
"Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions," Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "The department's efforts will level the playing field between religious and non-religious organizations competing for federal grants, as well as protect First Amendment freedoms on campus and the religious liberty of faith-based institutions."
Another change put in place Thursday is the lifting of an Obama-era executive order that mandated religious providers tell their beneficiaries about their right to see a secular provider.
The Trump administration says this notice and referral requirement placed an undue burden on religious organizations.
Attorney General Bill Barr said the Framers believed that religious liberty and freedom of religious expression were indispensable to sustaining our government.
“The actions taken by the administration today will hopefully help secure religious freedom in our country for decades to come,” he said.
Other federal agencies that proposed religious-freedom rules Thursday include the Agency for International Development, the Agriculture Department, the Health and Human Services Department, the Homeland Security Department, the Labor Department, and the Veterans Affairs Department.
A case that could determine how religious schools gain access to taxpayer funds is set to go before the Supreme Court on Jan. 22. The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, stems from Montana’s ban religious schools from receiving public money.
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