Fighting to Keep Church-State Wall High


Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi, is executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, whose mission is in part to protect the boundaries between religion and government. We caught up with him last week as President Trump was readying new rules about prayer in public schools. Under the new religious freedom guidelines, states would have to report cases in which students were denied the right to pray in public schools, and states would have to verify that school districts do not have policies that limit the kinds of student-led school prayer that is protected by the Constitution. The guidelines had not been updated since 2003.

Q: In a speech at an evangelical rally in Miami two weeks ago, President Trump said he would soon be “taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools.” What is your reaction?

A: The issue of prayer in public schools is a matter of settled law. There is nothing the president can do to expand prayer in public schools without violating the Constitution as it has been interpreted to this very day. The Constitution does not say anything about school prayer, but it prohibits the establishment of any religion.

What is the history in the U.S. of school prayer?

There has been no public school district in the U.S. that has legally permitted school-sponsored prayer in more than a generation. There has been [student-led] prayer and Bible reading in public schools for a long time.

Do you think that with these new regulations the president is seeking to cement his support in the evangelical community?

That is what it looks like to me, but I would not put my money on knowing the president’s motivations for anything. But it is consistent with the agenda of Project Blitz, and it is happening on Jan. 16, Religious Freedom Day.

You mentioned Project Blitz, which is an initiative sponsored by religious-right groups that began around 2015 to urge legislators to create bills calling for Bible courses in public schools. Has the president endorsed this effort?

I have seen the president endorse the people who support Project Blitz.

Last year’s Bible course bills are a continuation of a push that began in 2006 when Republicans and some Democrats decided that bills promoting Bible courses made for good politics. Legislators introduced bills promoting Bible electives in nearly half of the U.S. states and more than a half dozen passed — the first time states adopted a statute calling for such courses.

Project Blitz did not emerge out of nothing. For 25 years or more, since the founding of the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority, right-wing evangelicals have been cultivating and promoting politicians at every level of local and state government. Now, a generation later, these legislators who served on school boards and zoning commissions and city councils have reached a point where they are elected to state legislatures and in some cases federal office. Many of them are sitting on the bench. Project Blitz is the fruit of a long cultivation; it is not something new and it is not the end of it.

Courts have approved such Bible classes as long as teachers present the material academically in ways that neither promote nor disparage religion in general or particular religious perspectives.

Yes, that has always been the case. These laws were not necessary in order to teach the Bible as literature. What is different now is that these laws are mandating these classes rather than just permitting them.

Who is monitoring what goes on in the classrooms?

That is the question. Whose curriculums are being used? Whose interpretations are being used? Whose Bible is being used? We have not heard complaints about these newly mandated courses yet but we have heard complaints when other faith traditions have been taught as academic subjects. People complained about the teaching of Islam, Buddhism and even about Judaism. Courses like these have been taught for a long time in different places. There was a case about a family that objected to their children being taught the tenets of Islam because they were taught the phrase, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet.” You can’t know what Islam is without knowing that phrase. But the parents suggested that by teaching it, it was promoting Islam. We are not hearing such objections raised to these Bible classes from those same people.

Do you plan to challenge the president’s new guidelines?

As Christian nationalists pursue Project Blitz at the state level, the Trump administration appears ready to back these policies with the full weight of the federal government. As fervent defenders of the Establishment Clause [which prohibits the government from establishing a religion or favoring one religion over another], we cannot stand by as the religious right continues to gain ground. The First Amendment protects the right of all Americans — people of faith and those of no faith — to believe as they choose without fear of government coercion. We will continue, in partnership with our allies, to resist efforts to distort religious freedom into a means to cause harm and stifle free expression.

Would you say this is politically motivated?

The election season has officially begun. The president has been impeached by the House and is looking for something that will divert attention and play to his base. … But I’m not concerned about his motivations. I am concerned about his actions, and this is clearly unconstitutional.