WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump unveiled a slew of rule proposals Thursday intended to expand the ability of religious groups to get federal money and to loosen restrictions on how they spend it, courting a valuable political constituency as the Senate began a critical phase of the impeachment process.
The nod toward Trump's evangelical base in an election year comes as the president tries to highlight his efforts to keep previous campaign promises. Trade agreements with Mexico, Canada and China also reached milestones this week even as the Senate began deciding whether to remove Trump from office. While playing to his base, Trump's rules are concerning to LGBTQ groups, which see them as possibly giving religious groups license to discriminate.
"It is a culture war," Trump said at an Oval Office ceremony, where he sat surrounded by religious activists and children from a variety of religious backgrounds. On his desk lay a large copy of the 2016 electoral map showing the areas he won.
"You have two sides and you have a side that believes so strongly in prayer and they're being restricted and it's getting worse and worse and I think we've made a big impact," he added.
The package of religious proposals announced Thursday are broad and their potential impact is uncertain, given that it will take months to approve rules in nine Cabinet agencies and potentially longer to interpret and defend them from expected court challenges.
The rules are primarily aimed at forcing states to get rid of prohibitions against awarding grant money to religious groups.
Some attorneys say they could also help churches and other religious groups argue in court that they have more latitude in offering programs that exclude or stigmatize LGBTQ people or require prayer as a condition of participation. Trump also reinforced existing protections for students who form prayer groups at school.
"The emphasis is entirely on protecting the religious exercise of providers," said Ira Lupu, a professor emeritus of law at George Washington University who specializes in the relationship between government and religion. There is "no attention to or emphasis on the rights of perspective beneficiaries of these services to be free from discrimination."
Robert Tuttle, another professor at George Washington's law school, said the impacts could be broad, considering the number of groups that receive federal money -- "basically anybody that is providing services, social welfare services to folks is going to be touched in some way by these federal funding rules."
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both embraced initiatives intended to allow religious groups to get more federal funding for community activities such as homeless sheltering, marriage counseling or addiction treatment.