KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Three black pastors who support Donald Trump are filing a lawsuit against the Virginia Board of Elections. The issue is a new rule that requires all Republican primary voters to sign a loyalty pledge. The pastors say it's determination. NPR's Asma Khalid reports that it's a sign of the ongoing battle between Trump and the Republican establishment.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Remember that black ministers meeting Donald Trump held in New York City back in November? Well, the lead plaintiff in this case, Stephen Parson, was there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STEPHEN PARSON: And I tell you - we need jobs. We need employment. We need businesses. And I tell you - who better can help us help ourself than Donald Trump?
KHALID: That's Parson speaking at a Trump rally in Virginia. He's a minister from Richmond and an evangelist for Donald Trump. On Wednesday, Parson filed a lawsuit over a new requirement from his state's Republican Party. Virginia has an open primary, but this year, GOP voters must sign a nine-word statement that reads, quote, "my signature below indicates that I am a Republican."
CHESTER SMITH: I think that's a clear violation of people who would otherwise expect to be equally protected.
KHALID: That's Parson's lawyer Chester Smith. He argues this rule violates the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. And given Virginia's history of racial discrimination, the Trump supporters claim it imposes a burden of fear for black voters and has the potential for backlash in their communities.
But Rick Hasen is skeptical this lawsuit has any real legal muscle. He's an expert in elections law at the University of California, Irvine.
RICK HASEN: I don't think that having people sign the loyalty oath is any kind of legally binding requirement.
KHALID: Hasen also points out that lots of states have closed primaries, where only registered members of the party can vote, and that's totally constitutional. Hasen says the real issue here seems political.
HASEN: It does sound like a kind of make way to try to use the Voting Rights Act as a tool to try to actually achieve a different goal, which is to allow those people who don't want to express loyalty to the Republican Party but want to express loyalty to Donald Trump to be able to vote in the election.
KHALID: In a series of tweets, Trump blasted the loyalty pledge, saying the party needs to stop excluding new voters. Otherwise, it won't win. The Virginia GOP declined to comment.
But Dan Takaji a professor at Ohio State who focuses on election law believes the politics of this are clear.
DAN TAKAJI: I don't think there's much doubt that at least a part of the reason behind the Republican Party of Virginia's decision is a desire to make it more difficult for Trump supporters to vote in the Republican primary.
KHALID: But, Takaji adds, that doesn't mean the rule is illegal or unconstitutional. In fact, he thinks the lawsuit is weak. Still, he says, it's a sign - a warning of the growing battle between Trump and the GOP establishment. Asma Khalid, NPR News.