WASHINGTON - As he seeks to shore up support among evangelical Christians who were key to his election in 2016, President Donald Trump on Thursday announced new federal guidance he has said will "safeguard" students' ability to pray in school.
The guidance, which clarifies that students and parents may report complaints about religious discrimination to state education departments, were announced alongside a series of other proposals Trump administration officials said are intended to protect religious freedom.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Trump blamed the "far-left" for a "totalitarian impulse" to restrict religion. He heard from several people who said they had been prohibited from praying in school, though the president offered no evidence that the highlighted incidents were politically motivated.
"We will not let anyone push God from the public square," Trump said.
Trump previewed the idea during an address to evangelicals in Florida this month, praising state efforts to expand school prayer and warning against what he described as "hard left" opposition.
It was, in fact, the Supreme Court that cracked down on prayer in schools in the 1960s. Students are permitted to pray alone or in groups in school as long as other students aren't compelled to take part. Administration officials said they want to ensure the constitutional separation of church and state does not infringe on students' constitutional right to practice their religion.
Trump's remarks came weeks after a faith-focused magazine, Christianity Today, founded by evangelical preacher Billy Graham, posted an editorial calling for him to be removed from office. The president blasted the magazine as "far left" but the editorial nevertheless re-opened a debate about Trump's presidency among evangelicals.
More: Trump calls Christianity Today 'far left' after editorial called for his removal
In the 2016 presidential election, Trump won 80% of the votes from whites who declared themselves born-again or evangelical Christians, according to exit polling. Trump told an Evangelicals for Trump event in Miami this month thathe expects his re-election to generate even more enthusiasm among the Christian faithful than in 2016.
Administration officials said the guidance, which had not been updated since 2003, would clarify that state departments of education must provide a process for people to register complaints about a local school denying a student's ability to pray. The guidance will also remind state officials that they must report lawsuits over the issue of religious freedom to the federal government.
Trump is also proposing rules to roll back an Obama-era requirement that religious social service organizations - such as drug treatment centers - must be willing to make referrals to non-religious providers. Trump signed an order to unwind that requirement in 2018, and the Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday it is moving to implement that order.
Trump officials said the requirement singles out religious organizations for extra regulatory burden. Federal law requires some religious providers to offer a referral in certain circumstances to protect a person's ability to opt out. The Obama administration expanded the requirement to additional providers not covered by law, and Trump is now proposing to undo that expansion.
Though it was not clear what specifically has sparked Trump's interest in the issue, the president mentioned during his remarks an effort in Tennessee to expand school prayer. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in November against a school district there that it said sponsored prayer assemblies and Bible distribution.
Contributing: Palm Beach Post, David Jackson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump discusses school prayer as he seeks to shore up evangelical vote