President Offers Guidance on Religion in Schools

By Mark Walsh — August 02, 1995 4 min read
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President Clinton’s recent memorandum on religious expression in public schools gives educators some needed guidance but is silent on several contentious issues, such as student-led graduation prayers.

“We hope that it will resolve a lot of controversies, which is not to say that there is anything that any of us could do to remove all of the controversies,” said Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger, who helped write the document.

The memorandum, which was drafted by officials in the Education and Justice departments, details what is permissible under existing law. It is advisory, not an official policy that schools are legally bound to follow.

The President has ordered Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to distribute the directive to every school district by the start of the 1995-96 academic year

Mr. Riley said the directive “will go a long way to reducing the confusion and ending the unnecessary litigation.”

“The First Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution] does not--I will say again--does not convert our schools into religion-free zones,” Mr. Clinton said in a July 12 speech at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., a Washington suburb where he unveiled his directive.

Mistaken Impressions

Some school officials mistakenly believe that the Constitution forbids any religious expression in public schools, the President said, noting that this has led to incidents in which children were barred from saying grace over their meals, from wearing clothing with religious messages, or from bringing a Bible to school to read during personal time.

“When the First Amendment is invoked as an obstacle to private expression of religion, it is being misused,” he said. “If a student is told she cannot bring a Bible to school, we have to tell the school, ‘No, the law guarantees her the right to bring the Bible to school.’”

Mr. Clinton’s initiative seems designed in part to dampen support for a Republican proposal to amend the Constitution to provide what proponents say would be a stronger guarantee of religious liberty. Conservatives want an amendment that would guarantee students the right to pray at graduation and perhaps allow other forms of group prayer in public schools.

“I still believe the First Amendment as it is presently written permits the American people to do what they need to do,” Mr. Clinton said.

Missing Topics

The directive covers topics such as the right of students to pray before and after school, their right to choose religious topics for research papers or artwork when appropriate, and their right to distribute religious literature at school. (See related story .)

However, the directive is silent about several issues that have caused controversy recently. Most notably, it says nothing about student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies, whose legal status has been uncertain since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that districts cannot invite clergy members to deliver such prayers.

In his speech, the President reiterated his basic disagreement with the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Lee v. Weisman.

“I didn’t think [clergy-led prayers] amounted to the establishment of a religious practice by the government,” Mr. Clinton said.

The directive states that under current Supreme Court rulings, “school officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation, nor organize religious baccalaureate ceremonies.”

The document also says nothing about organized prayers at school sporting events or mandatory pregame prayers among athletic-team members. Nor does it say how far school choirs may go in performing religious music.

Despite the omissions, August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, was full of praise for the President, saying the directive provides reliable legal advice that will help minimize the chances that school districts will be sued.

“It’s a big help because teachers, principals, and school administrators cannot be expected to be experts in constitutional law,” he said.

A Starting Point

Charles C. Haynes, a scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University who(See education, said the Clinton directive is a good starting point for reducing conflicts.

“It is up to schools and communities to decide whether they are going to take religion seriously,” Mr. Haynes said. “If they don’t, then I see the cultural battles over religion and education continuing and deepening.”

Some religious conservatives offered qualified praise.

“While differences remain on the issue of a constitutional amendment, the President has now agreed with our longstanding position: that public schools should not be religion-free zones,” Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, said in a prepared statement.

However, Jay A. Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal-advocacy organization based in Virginia Beach, Va., called Mr. Clinton’s statement “a convenient afterthought to a national debate that has been raging for years.”

Both the Christian Coalition and the A.C.L.J. are affiliated with the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

An aide to Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., R-Okla., who is leading the Republican drive to draft a religious-liberty amendment, said the President’s directive is no reason to scuttle the effort.

“We agree there are a great many problems of misunderstanding as to what is legal,” said Steve Jones, a spokesman for Mr. Istook. “But there are also a great many problems caused by what the law actually is.”

Staff writer Robert C. Johnston also contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1995 edition of Education Week as President Offers Guidance on Religion in Schools


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