Clinton on Religion in Schools

The Christian Century, August 2, 1995 | Go to article overview

Clinton on Religion in Schools


PRESIDENT CLINTON issued a landmark directive July 12 providing guidelines for religious expression in public schools. The president's move was widely interpreted as a pre-emptive strike against a proposed constitutional amendment on religious freedom backed by Christian conservatives, though he did not mention that measure in his remarks.

Reactions to Clinton's speech were mixed. Advocates of church-state separation hailed his effort to clarify existing law on religious expression. But backers of closer church-state ties said Clinton's initiative doesn't go far enough. Speaking to religious leaders, students and teachers gathered at James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, the president said he has ordered Education Secretary Richard Riley and Attorney General Janet Reno "to provide every school district in America before school starts this fall with a detailed explanation of the religious expression permitted at school."

Among the principles outlined in Clinton's directive are the rights of students to pray individually and in groups during the school day and to wear religious messages on their clothing if they are allowed to wear comparable nonreligious messages. In addition, the directive notes that students can participate in religious events before and after school and can wear religious garb, such as head scarves and yarmulkes. "What we have to do is to work together to help all Americans understand exactly what the First Amendment does," Clinton said. "It protects freedom of religion by allowing students to pray and it protects freedom of religion by preventing schools from telling them how and when and what to pray. The First Amendment keeps us all on common ground."

Clinton's directive, however, makes clear that organized public-school prayer--advocated by many conservative Christians--should remain illegal. The directive also states that teachers and school administrators are prohibited from soliciting, encouraging or discouraging religious activity while in their roles as government employees. Clinton asserted that students should be allowed to express their religious beliefs in their homework, artwork and other assignments as long as such expression relates to a school assignment.

There are rare cases, he also said, in which students have been prevented from exercising rights such as reading a Bible in study hall or saying grace before a meal. "Americans should never have to hide their faith, but some Americans have been denied the right to express their religion, and that has to stop. The First Amendment does not--I will say again, does not--convert our schools into religion-free zones." However, he went on to say, "I ... believe the First Amendment as it is presently written permits the American people to do what they need to do."

Forest Montgomery, counsel for the National Association of Evangelicals' Office of Public Affairs, commended Clinton for his directive but maintained that the proposed "Religious Equality Amendment" is still needed. Supporters of the amendment, still being formulated, say it would allow for wider religious expression in public places, such as schools and offices, than currently exists. "We're delighted that the president ... is going to be communicating to the nation's schools that they ought to lighten up a bit and allow full religious expression," Montgomery said. But, he added, "we still think the amendment is necessary" because the nation's courts remain divided over religious-liberty issues. Montgomery cited a recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court case allowing state university funding of a religious publication.

The Christian Coalition, a conservative political group founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, hailed Clinton's directive, calling it an attempt to "clear the air" about students' rights. But coalition spokesman Mike Russell argued that the group has yet to see a successful effort to provide guidelines on religious speech. …

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