July 13, 1995 in Nation/World

Clinton Says Prayer, Law Not At Odds President Tries To Head Off Constitutional Amendment

William Neikirk Chicago Tribune

Countering Republicans who propose a school prayer amendment, President Clinton said Wednesday that the First Amendment to the Constitution provides ample room for students to pray and practice religion in the nation’s public schools.

“The First Amendment does not convert our schools into religion-free zones,” Clinton said in a speech to high school students in suburban Virginia, reflecting his increasing tilt to the right on social issues.

“I still believe that the First Amendment as it is presently written permits the American people to do what they need to do” in terms of religious practices, he said. The amendment guarantees free speech and prohibits government-established religion.

Clinton ordered the Education Department to send to every school district in America a newly compiled list of religious practices that administrators may permit without violating the Constitution and related court interpretations.

“Some school officials and teachers and parents believe that the Constitution forbids any religious expression at all in the public schools,” he said. “That is wrong.”

White House chief of staff Leon Panetta later told reporters the speech was designed to show that the “constitutional amendment on school prayer is not required.”

The school-prayer amendment is a centerpiece of the conservative social agenda in Congress, and its chances have improved dramatically with Republican control of Congress. Panetta said a year ago it would not have passed the House, but might today.

Though the president did not mention the school-prayer amendment pushed by many in the GOP, he associated himself with the frustrations of many Americans who feel that religion is not welcome in such public settings.

“I am deeply troubled that so many Americans feel that their faith is threatened by the mechanisms that are designed to protect their faith,” the president said.

The threat comes more from misguided public perceptions than from Supreme Court decisions separating church and state, Clinton said. Rejecting claims of many conservatives that a constitutional amendment is needed to protect religious freedom, he said people already have considerably more leeway to practice their religion in public than many suppose.

The administration’s list of permitted religious activities included circumstances under which students could pray and speak on religious questions in public schools if the activity is not disruptive and not coerced.

They can share views with other students and pass out literature, it said.

“Some student religious groups haven’t been allowed to publicize their meetings in the same way that non-religious groups have,” the president said. “Some students have been prevented even from saying grace before lunch. That is rare, but it has happened, and it is wrong.”

Students can wear a yarmulke or carry a Bible to school, he said. Student religious groups can advertise their meetings, meet on school grounds, use school facilities as other clubs do, and at times pray out loud together, the president added.

In his 45-minute talk at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., Clinton said no one did more to put the First Amendment in the Constitution than Madison himself.

He said the amendment “has protected our freedom to be religious or not religious, as we choose, with the consequence that in this highly secular age, the United States is clearly the most conventionally religious country in the entire world.”

The amendment sets out a proper balance between permitting freedom of religion and speech and banning established religion, he said, calling it a “great gift to us.”

xxxx Prayer and the law The law permits a wide range of religious expression in public schools:

Allowed: Praying alone or in after-school groups Students’ discussing or advocating religion with willing listeners Teaching about religion as an influence on society Making religious or anti-religious remarks during classroom discussion Religious clubs’ use of school facilities if other extracurricular groups also have access Wearing clothing with religious messages

Not Allowed: Requiring students to participate in religious activities such as prayer or Bible reading Requiring a moment of silence for meditation or prayer Government funding of secular or religious education programs at private or parochial schools School-sponsored prayer at graduation ceremonies, although student-directed prayer might be permissible Teachers’ advocacy of religious doctrines Observing holidays as religious events - Knight-Ridder

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