Photo illustration of Rafael Cruz; a sign for Grapevine High School in Texas; a man raises his hand in worship at a Texas church; and David Barton.

Inside the anti-LGBTQ effort to put Christianity back in schools

“Grapevine” is a new NBC News podcast about faith and power — and what it means to protect children — in an American suburb. Listen to the series here.

Political and religious leaders who have long fought to put God and prayer back in schools are seizing on a growing backlash against transgender people to advance their agenda.

Some evangelical pastors who regularly deliver sermons in support of school prayer have recently added a new twist — preaching that Christian traditions are needed in classrooms to stop children from identifying as transgender.

At national conservative gatherings, politicians and activists have been attempting to draw direct connections between the lack of religious instruction in schools and the growing acceptance of transgender people in mainstream culture.

“School prayer is banned, but drag shows are allowed to permeate the whole place,” former President Donald Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. “You can’t teach the Bible, but you can teach children that America is evil and that men are able to get pregnant.”

Politics and religion’s growing influence in three Texas school districts

Oct. 3, 202303:49

In another speech this spring in North Carolina, Trump — the front-runner in polls for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination — marveled at the power of this new talking point to rile up supporters.

“I talk about transgender,” he said, “everyone goes crazy.”

Trump, like other GOP politicians, is tapping into an ascendent evangelical movement that rejects church-state separation as a false doctrine and views LGBTQ acceptance as a threat to America.

The two-pronged fight to elevate Christianity and restrict trans rights in classrooms is the focus of a new six-part narrative podcast by NBC News Studios. The series, “Grapevine,” documents a well-funded campaign to impose conservative, biblical morality in public schools in Grapevine, Texas, and reveals its impact on the lives of teachers, students and parents. While the podcast focuses on the political clash in one suburban school system, similar fights are unfolding in communities across the country. 

“What we’re seeing is the culmination of decades of political activism by the Christian right,” said David Brockman, a scholar of religion at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Brockman, who has spent years studying the influence of far-right Christian activism, said some evangelical leaders see the vitriolic backlash against transgender people, LGBTQ children’s books and gender-affirming medical care as a powerful new tool to motivate followers.

In Grapevine, newly elected school board members backed by a far-right Christian cellphone company approved a sweeping plan last year that, among other things, banned mention of “gender fluidity” from libraries and classrooms, which the document defined as any belief that “espouses the view that biological sex is merely a social construct.”

Parents packed into the meeting room of the Grapevine-Colleyville school board in August 2022 to comment on a plan to ban books and lessons on “gender fluidity” from the Texas school district.Emil T. Lippe for NBC News file

In Suffolk, Virginia, community members interrupted a school board meeting in August by reciting the Lord’s Prayer to protest a plan meant to make schools welcoming for transgender students.

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And in California that same month, a school board member who had advanced a policy banning LGBTQ pride flags from classrooms told followers they were engaged in “a spiritual battle” for their children.

LGBTQ rights advocates warn that the rhetoric emanating out of some churches, where faith leaders and politicians have baselessly accused LGBTQ people of sexually “grooming” children, could lead to violence.

“To watch faith weaponized in that way, I think is really scary,” said Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of Equality Texas, an LGBTQ advocacy group. “That’s not a faith I recognize. It’s not the empathy, the compassion, the grace that I learned attending my church.”

The fight to impose conservative Christian values in schools is also being waged at the state level.

This summer, the Florida Department of Education approved content created by the Christian conservative advocacy group PragerU Kids for use in public schools, including a video instructing that America was founded as a Christian nation.

In Oklahoma, Ryan Walters, the state’s Republican education chief, has been pushing to hang the Ten Commandments in classrooms, approved the country’s first religious charter school and adopted regulations requiring educators to tell parents if their child changes their gender identity.

“This is a war for the souls of our kids,” Walters declared shortly after his election last year.

Ryan WaltersOklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters has pushed to hang the Ten Commandments in school classrooms. Sue Ogrocki / AP file

Texas state Rep. Nate Schatzline, a freshman Republican legislator and former youth pastor, staged a Christian worship gathering inside the state Capitol on the first day of the 2023 legislative session. As his supporters sang and spoke in tongues, Schatzline prayed for God to reign over “everything that goes on in this building.”

In the months that followed, Schatzline and other Republicans in Texas passed bills banning gender-affirming medical care for minors, restricting drag performances and giving public schools authority to hire religious chaplains to serve as unlicensed counselors.

In an interview with NBC News, Schatzline said he supports public policies rooted in Christian morals, which he described as the foundation of American society. While denying that Republicans want to force their religion on anyone, Schatzline said he does not believe in the separation of church and state as it’s been applied by federal courts in recent decades.

The idea was meant “to keep the state out of the church,” Schatzline said, “not to keep the church out of the state.”

This push comes at a time of growing optimism among evangelical activists who have long held the Christian nationalist view that America’s laws should be based on biblical teachings. With the U.S. Supreme Court now controlled by a conservative supermajority, religious fundamentalists see an opportunity to tear down legal guardrails separating religion from public life.

A tight portrait of David Barton  wearing a cowboy hat.Self-taught historian David Barton has spent decades arguing that America was founded as a Christian nation and that public schools should reflect evangelical values.David Calvert / Getty Images file

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David Barton, a self-taught historian and founder of WallBuilders, a group dedicated to promoting the idea that America was founded to be an explicitly Christian nation, told a crowd in Grapevine this spring that given the Supreme Court’s makeup, local schools could now confidently restore classroom prayer and go back to teaching the biblical creation narrative. 

One goal of restoring religious traditions in schools, Barton said to an audience that included local school board members, was to draw a legal challenge that could serve as a test case to overturn the separation of church and state.

“Hopefully somebody will sue you if you do this, because that’s what we need,” he said. “We can win at that, and the whole nation wins as a result.”

Barton has at other times pointed to increases in the number of youth identifying as transgender as a leading sign of moral decline in America, which he attributes to the lack of prayer in schools.

Protecting children from transgender identity was also a major theme in June at the National Association of Christian Lawmakers conference in Lynchburg, Virginia. The group was founded in 2019 to “bring federal, state and local lawmakers together in support of clear biblical principles.”

Jason Rapert, a former Arkansas state senator and the group’s founder, tied his organization’s Christian mission to the fight against trans rights — and used incendiary and misleading language about gender-affirming medical care to make his case.

“With Democrats and leftists that are advocating cutting penises off of little boys and breasts off of little girls, we have reached a level of debauchery and immorality that is at biblical proportions,” Rapert told reporters. 

Although the number of trans minors receiving puberty blockers and hormones has increased in recent years, data shows only a tiny percentage of transgender teens receive mastectomies each year, and even fewer receive genital surgeries.

An attendee holds up a sign outside the meeting room during a Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District school board meeting in Grapevine, Texas on Aug. 22, 2022.A resident protests a plan by the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District to restrict lessons on race, gender and sexuality.Emil Lippe for NBC News file

Nevertheless, when Rafael Cruz — a pastor and the father of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — preached on the subject in April at a church-based rally for conservative school board candidates in McKinney, Texas, he falsely claimed that students were being forced to change genders and being “mutilated” inside public schools. (The elder Cruz didn’t respond to interview requests.)

This moral downturn began six decades ago, Cruz told his followers, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory prayer and Bible readings from schools.

And now, he said, the solution was to restore those religious traditions.

To do that, Cruz said, “we need to make sure that we have strong, committed Christians in every position in every school board in America.”

Mike Hixenbaugh

Mike Hixenbaugh is a senior investigative reporter for NBC News, based in Houston.

Antonia Hylton

Antonia Hylton is a correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.