“There’s a lot of hostility to religious beliefs,” says Joe Grogan, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House.
“These views are protected by the First Amendment and people who are offended by public expressions of faith need to get over it,” he adds.
In this exclusive interview at the White House, Grogan outlines what the Trump administration is doing to ensure Americans remain free to live in accordance with their beliefs. Read the lightly edited transcript, pasted below, or listen to the interview:
Rob Bluey: The Daily Signal is on location at the White House today, just moments after President [Donald] Trump’s Religious Freedom Day announcements. We’re joined by Joe Grogan, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House.
Joe, thanks for talking to The Daily Signal.
Joe Grogan: Thanks for having me.
Bluey: We had some big developments happening in Washington this week. President Trump signed Phase 1 of the trade deal with China, and the U.S. Congress just passed today the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which is headed to the president’s desk now for his signature.
But let’s begin with the Religious Freedom Day announcements. … There are three of them, and let’s take them one at a time. We can start with prayer in school.
Grogan: Sure. I actually just left a meeting in the Oval Office. He had a bunch of students and teachers and a coach in there, all of whom had been discriminated against in public schools for expressing their faith.
The coach had been fired. … There were a group of students that were told they couldn’t pray in the cafeteria for a brother of one of the students who had been in a tractor accident, and … they’d been told, “You have to take this behind a curtain or go outside, out of sight. We can’t have anybody expressing their faith in public.”
What we’re doing is we’re updating a guidance that was supposed to be updated every two years by law and hadn’t been updated since 2003, and making it explicit that students have First Amendment rights, including religious freedoms.
They have the right to express their religious beliefs openly, publicly, and if they are discriminated against or they perceive they are, the education officials in every state need to set up a procedure for them to be able to complain.
And those complaints need to be adjudicated in some way. The education official needs to inform the Department of Education how they adjudicate these claims and what they’re doing to make sure that religious beliefs are protected.
There’s a lot of hostility to religious beliefs. There’s a perception that people who express their religious beliefs somehow may be offending others who don’t have those beliefs, but it’s clearly discriminatory. These views are protected by the First Amendment and people who are offended by public expressions of faith need to get over it.
These students and teachers need to be able to, on their own time, say that they believe in God, whether they be Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or whatever faith that they ascribe to.
Bluey: Those personal stories have such an impact. We tend to cover a lot of them at The Daily Signal, and they are often some of our most popular stories, I think, because they don’t get the attention that they deserve in other media outlets.
The second on the list is nine proposed rules that the Trump administration is rolling out to protect religious organizations from unfair and unequal treatment by the federal government. Can you tell us what these rules entail?
Grogan: Yeah. This overturns an Obama-era regulation, which really discriminated against faith-based organizations and treated them as second-class grantees when receiving federal funds.
Basically what it said is anytime somebody goes to a faith-based organization for a service, they need to be presumed to be potentially offended by the religious nature of that organization. The religious organization needs to inform them that if they are offended by the religious nature of the organization, they can, they will find a secular organization for them to get the same service.
There’s no presumption on the part of a secular organization that somebody going there for services may be offended by the secular nature or whatever reason that institution was set up.
It’s patronizing, clearly to citizens, first and foremost, that people should be presumed to be offended by people of faith.
We all interact with people of different faiths on a daily basis and we’re not offended by it as responsible human beings, so why would the government presume this is outrageous. And why would we have this additional burden on religious organizations or people who are called to particular work to help people, out of spiritual belief, is beyond me.
But many of the things are gains of inches. This took a lot of work actually to get nine agencies to work in a collaborative way to get this done. We’re proud to have gotten it done though.
Bluey: It certainly is. The third announcement that was made involved the Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran case, a 2017 decision, and the Office of Management and Budget has issued some new guidance regarding grant-making. Tell us about this change.
Grogan: Yes. The Office of Management and Budget is sending out a memo to all federal agencies who give money to states to remind them that it’s up to these agencies to make sure that the states, when they distribute the money, don’t discriminate against religious organizations.
This directly comes out of the Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court decision, where Trinity Lutheran applied for a grant to improve the playground.
There was a program to make playgrounds safer and they were denied the funds. This wasn’t for religious purposes, it was to make kids safer, and yet there the state decided “no,” because they were a religious organization they couldn’t get it.
The Supreme Court said, “Look, that’s not right. This is a secular purpose and they should be able to get access to the fund, same as any other organization.”
So we’re making that explicit, from the Office of Management and Budget, and putting the agencies on notice that they need to police the states.
There are 37 states actually that have Blaine Amendments on their books, in one form or another, which came out of anti-Catholic bias, which is clear from the historical and the legal record. We need to make it clear that those amendments or other regulations or statutes that may be on the book can’t be enforced against religious organizations.
Bluey: We’re talking about these because it is Religious Freedom Day, but this is a president who’s made religious freedom of priority throughout his time in office and throughout his administration. What has it been like working with him on these issues?
Grogan: It’s fantastic. I mean, you don’t have to go in there and argue about the merits of pursuing religious freedom initiatives. You don’t have to say it’s important that we allow religious institutions back into the public square, or people of faith to pray openly.
He does ask questions. He wants to make sure we’re doing it in the right way. He wants to make sure we’ve thought things through. But this isn’t a president who needs a lot of convincing on these issues.
He’s fired up to do it and thinks that religious institutions have a central role to play in America’s civic life and the private lives of Americans, too. So he’s totally aligned.
There’s a whole group of people here across the White House, and in the agencies, many people who are veterans of various fights for religious freedom, who have been drawn to this administration to work on these issues. And to be frank, they’re having a blast in this administration to work on issues like this.
Bluey: Thanks for sharing that.
Now, shifting gears, let’s talk about trade. This week the president signed the Phase One trade deal with China. Obviously, a long initiative that this president has talked about even prior to his election campaign in 2016. I know China is an issue he’s focused on a great deal. Tell our listeners what they need to know about Phase One and where we go from here.
Grogan: Yeah, I think what you’re seeing in the last few weeks is really … everything’s firing on all cylinders for this president. And the entire arc of his first term is being set from going back to the first major legislative achievement, which would be tax reform, and now going where we have the omnibus spending deal right before the end of the year.
We had a number of significant policy wins, removing three Obamacare taxes, in addition to when he had removed the individual mandate. And now we’ve got the China trade deal and the USMCA passing this morning.
Making trade more fair for the United States, having a president who fights for American industries and American workers has been central to his belief system, his messaging, since long before he ran for president.
I remember growing up in upstate New York hearing him talk about this, and attacking the way NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was constructed, attacking the way that we had let China come into the World Trade Organization, and he really has achieved a tremendous win with the China trade deal.
And matter of fact, it’s very interesting to watch a number of the president’s critics over the last few weeks belittle when this trade deal was announced to be signed. But when you see the details of it, I think that … the tone has changed.
I know some people just can’t get off their horse, but you see intellectual property protections, you see opening up of financial sectors, huge commitments to buy agricultural products, manufactured goods. It is a huge achievement.
And frankly, the work of the staff that went into it has been extraordinary. The number of meetings that the president has on this issue, he has been so focused on it. He’s inexhaustible. If it was the only issue that he had worked on for the first three years, it would still be an extraordinary achievement, if it was the only trade deal, but of course we’ve got USMCA done.
I think at the heart of it you see a president who is saying, “Look, this is not a fait accompli, that we’re going to lose American jobs, that we’re going to lose American industry, and that American workers are going to be resigned from, to do work that they would rather not do.”
And some of the contempt of the intellectual class over the last couple of decades were people who were involved in manufacturing just need to learn how to code or get used to the service economy. It’s nice to see the president saying, “No, we can still manufacture in the United States.” If we have a president and people around him willing to fight for American workers, we can win. And you see us winning.
Bluey: You mentioned the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Final question for you here. The president has talked about how that’s going to really impact, in a positive way, American businesses and families, particularly in the heartland of this country. What does it mean for them, for those people who might not know the intricate details of the agreement, but want to know how it might change their lives?
Grogan: I think first and foremost, there has been a lot of scaremongering around the fact that the president wanted to pull out of NAFTA. But if you look at the numbers about the impact upon our agricultural sector, but also manufacturing post-NAFTA passing, according to many metrics, it’s not really a pretty picture.
What the president sought to do is to protect American industries, protect American workers, and put them at the forefront of … our trade agreement. And he has achieved that with the USMCA. It’s a total reset of our trade rules, and there’ll be more to come on that front.
The other thing to remember, too, is he signed a trade deal with Japan recently, which people forget, and that is a huge deal as well, with big commitments for purchases from American companies, produced in the United States.
So across the board we’re alleviating uncertainty here, heading into the final year of his first term, and the economy is roaring.
We’ve got record unemployment, record number of Americans at work now. We’ve never had so many Americans working right now. Record unemployment among African Americans, Hispanic Americans, women employment, Asian American unemployment’s at a record low. So everything is setting up beautifully.
The president has gotten attacked for so many of these policies that he was pursuing. Remember when he was running for president, they said if he was going to win, so many of the critics on the left and these brilliant economists said the economy’s in the tank, and today the Dow Jones Industrial Average is over 29,000. I think 29,200, the last I checked. So it’s a tremendous day for the president and it’s great fun to be here right now.
Bluey: Joe Grogan, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. Thanks so much for talking to The Daily Signal.
Grogan: Thank you.