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Clinton to Issue Guidelines on School Religion Rights

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to blunt a Republican drive for a constitutional amendment that would permit prayer in public schools, President Clinton declared Wednesday that some school districts have gone too far in banning religious activities and said that he will issue federal guidelines explaining what the law permits.

“The First Amendment does not require students to leave their religion at the schoolhouse door. . . . “ Clinton said. “Some school officials and teachers and parents believe that the Constitution forbids any religious expression at all in public schools. That is wrong.”

The President said that he had ordered Education Secretary Richard W. Riley and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to produce detailed guidelines on the issue and to send them to the nation’s estimated 15,000 public school districts before students return to their classrooms this fall--an unusual offering of federal advice to local educational authorities.

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Clinton said that he believes the Constitution already allows students to say grace in school cafeterias, read the Bible in study hall, wear T-shirts with religious themes and conduct religious club meetings on school grounds.

“Most schools do a very good job of protecting students’ religious rights but some students in America have been prohibited from reading the Bible silently in study hall. . . . Some students have been prevented even from saying grace before lunch,” he said in a speech at a high school in Vienna, Va., one of Washington’s western suburbs. “That is rare but it has happened and it is wrong.”

Moreover, the President added, he believes that public schools “should teach mainstream values and virtues,” even though they cannot explicitly teach religious beliefs.

Religious conservative groups, who have advocated changing the Constitution to make organized prayer legal in public schools, praised Clinton’s statement but complained that it did not go far enough.

“We welcome President Clinton’s defense of the rights of students to engage in voluntary school prayer,” said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition. “The next step is for President Clinton to support a constitutional amendment or statute that protects religious expression.”

On the other side of the issue, the American Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed allowing organized religious activity in schools, worried that Clinton’s speech went too far.

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“There’s good news here in that the President made a strong case against any changes in the First Amendment,” ACLU Director Laura Murphy said. “But there is also an attempt to push the envelope on what is permitted. . . . I’ve already been getting calls from worried Jewish parents asking: ‘Does this mean my child is going to have to listen to Christian prayers?’

“This is an olive branch to the conservative Christian groups,” she added. “This is a way of portraying the President as a centrist. We have no illusion about that.”

White House officials freely conceded that Clinton’s main goal was to make clear that his position is in line with that of most Americans, who believe restrictions on religious activity in schools have gone too far.

“This is a subject of enormous importance to millions of Americans who believe that their right to freely exercise their rights under the First Amendment are somehow in jeopardy,” White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said.

In that sense, the school prayer statement was only the latest of many efforts Clinton has made to portray himself as a centrist “new Democrat,” rather than the kind of liberal Democrat many voters said they rejected in last November’s congressional elections.

By issuing relatively permissive guidelines showing what schools can already allow, officials said, Clinton hopes to avoid a contentious national debate over a constitutional amendment that would allow Republicans to paint him as less fervent in promoting religious life.

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And they pointed out that Clinton has long spoken out against excessive restrictions on religious activity and supported legislation as governor of Arkansas that would allow a non-sectarian moment of silence in public school classrooms.

At the same time, the President renewed his opposition to a constitutional amendment that would allow schools to restore officially sponsored prayer and said that it remains important to protect schoolchildren from being compelled to participate in religious activities.

He recalled that in junior high school in Hot Springs, Ark., he was often assigned to read aloud from the Bible at the opening of the school day and “never gave a second thought most of the time to the fact . . . that there were Jews in the classroom who were probably deeply offended.”

Today, he noted, “one county in America, Los Angeles County, has over 150 different racial and ethnic groups in it. . . . How many religious views do you suppose are in those groups?”

Education Secretary Riley, who was handed the ticklish assignment of assembling the guidelines, said that the document would do little more than set out what the Supreme Court and lower courts have already decided.

“It’s basically an interpretation of current law,” he told reporters at the White House. “We’re not trying to make a point but to be helpful as to what religious expression is protected . . . so people can have that to rely on.”

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He said issues that the courts have not yet clarified--such as whether a student could open a graduation ceremony with a prayer--will not be decided by the Administration guidelines.

Also left open was the question of whether Clinton might support a federal law spelling out religious activities that are constitutionally permissible.

Some of the proponents of a school prayer amendment, fearing that they may fall short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional measure through Congress, have said that they may seek a simple federal statute instead.

In the past, Clinton has said that he might accept such a law, depending on the wording.

He remains officially undecided on that question, Assistant Atty. Gen. Walter Dellinger said Wednesday.

“The existing Constitution provides considerable protection for student religious expression,” Dellinger said in an interview. “Whether it would be useful at some point to codify those protections in statutory form is a question that is to be decided in the future.”

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