1995 Speech by President Clinton
on religious liberty: Part 1
President Clinton gave a speech on 1995-JUL-12 on Religious
Liberty in America to a group of students at James Madison
High School in Vienna, VA. The text appears below with the
Last week at my alma mater, Georgetown, I had a chance
to do something that I hope to do more often as President, to have a
genuine conversation with the American people about the best way for
us to move forward as a nation and to resolve some of the great
questions that are nagging at us today. I believe, as I have said
repeatedly, that our nation faces two great challenges: first of
all, to restore the American dream of opportunity, and the American
tradition or responsibility; and second, to bring our country
together amidst all of our diversity in a stronger community so that
we can find common ground and move forward together.
In my first two years as President I worked harder on
the first question, how to get the economy going, how to deal with
the specific problems of the country, how to inspire more
responsibility through things like welfare reform and child support
enforcement. But I have come to believe that unless we can solve the
second problem we'll never really solve the first one. Unless we can
find a way to honestly and openly debate our differences and find
common ground, to celebrate all the diversity of America and still
give people a chance to live in the way they think is right, so that
we are stronger for our differences, not weaker, we won't be able to
meet the economic and other challenges before us. And therefore, I
have decided that I should spend some more time in some conversations
about things Americans care a lot about and that they're deeply
Today I want to talk about a conversation -- about a
subject that can provoke a fight in nearly any country town or on any
city street corner in America -- religion. It's a subject that should
not drive us apart. And we have a mechanism as old as our Constitution
for bringing us together.
This country, after all, was founded by people of
profound faith who mentioned Divine Providence and the guidance of
God twice in the Declaration of Independence. They were searching
for a place to express their faith freely without persecution. We
take it for granted today that that's so in this country, but it was
not always so. And it certainly has not always been so across the
world. Many of the people who were our first settlers came here
primarily because they were looking for a place where they could
practice their faith without being persecuted by the government.
Here in Virginia's soil, as the Secretary of Education
has said, the oldest and deepest roots of religious liberty can be
found. The First Amendment was modeled on
Thomas Jefferson's Statutes of Religious Liberty for Virginia. He
thought so much of it that he asked that on his gravestone it be said
not that he was President, not that he had been Vice President or
Secretary of State, but that he was the founder of the University of
Virginia, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the
author of the Statues of Religious Liberty for the state of Virginia.
And of course, no one did more than James Madison to put
the entire Bill of Rights in our Constitution, and especially, the
Religious freedom is literally our first freedom. It is
the first thing mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. And as
it opens, it says Congress cannot make a law that either establishes
a religion or restricts the free exercise of religion. Now, as with
every provision of our Constitution, that law has had to be
interpreted over the years, and it has in various ways that some of
us agree with and some of us disagree with. But one thing is
indisputable: the First 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, at least the
entire industrialized world.
We have more than 250,000 places of worship. More
people go to church here every week, or to synagogue, or to a mosque
or other place of worship than in any other country in the world.
More people believe religion is directly important to their lives
than in any other advanced, industrialized country in the world. And
it is not an accident. It is something that has always been a part
of our life.
I grew up in Arkansas which is, except for West
Virginia, probably the state that's most heavily Southern Baptist
Protestant in the country. But we had two synagogues and a Greek
Orthodox church in my hometown. Not so long ago in the heart of our
agricultural country in Eastern Arkansas one of our universities did
a big outreach to students in the Middle East, and before you know
it, out there on this flat land where there was no building more than
two stories high, there rose a great mosque. And all the farmers
from miles around drove in to see what the mosque was like and try to
figure out what was going on there. (Laughter.)
This is a remarkable country. And I have tried to be
faithful to that tradition that we have of the First Amendment. It's
something that's very important to me.
Secretary Riley mentioned when I was at Georgetown,
Georgetown is a Jesuit school, a Catholic school. All the Catholics
were required to teach theology, and those of us who weren't Catholic
took a course in world's religion, which we called Buddhism for
Baptists. (Laughter.) And I began a sort of love affair with the
religions that I did not know anything about before that time.
It's a personal thing to me because of my own religious
faith and the faith of my family. And I've always felt that in order
for me to be free to practice my faith in this country, I had to let
other people be as free as possible to practice theirs, and that the
government had an extraordinary obligation to bend over backwards not
to do anything to impose any set of views on any group of people or
to allow others to do it under the cover of law.
That's why I was very proud -- one of the proudest things
I've been able to do as President was to sign into law the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. And it was designed to reverse the
decision of the Supreme Court that essentially made it pretty easy for
government, in the pursuit of its legitimate objectives, to restrict
the exercise of people's religious liberties. This law basically
said -- I won't use the legalese -- the bottom line was that if the
government is going to restrict anybody's legitimate exercise of
religion they have to have an extraordinarily good reason and no other
way to achieve their compelling objective other than to do this. You
have to bend over backwards to avoid getting in the way of people's
legitimate exercise of their religious convictions. That's what that
This is something I've tried to do throughout my career.
When I was governor, for example, we were having -- of Arkansas in
the '80s -- you may remember this -- there were religious leaders
going to jail in America because they ran child care centers that
they refused to have certified by the state because they said it
undermined their ministry. We solved that problem in our state.
There were people who were prepared to go to jail over the home
schooling issue in the '80s because they said it was part of their
religious ministry. We solved that problem in our state.
With the Religious Freedom Restoration Act we made it
possible, clearly, in areas that were previously ambiguous for Native
Americans, for American Jews, for Muslims to practice the full range
of their religious practices when they might have otherwise come in
contact with some governmental regulation.
And in a case that was quite important to the
Evangelicals in our country, I instructed the Justice Department to
change our position after the law passed on a tithing case where a
family had been tithing to their church and the man declared
bankruptcy, and the government took the position they could go get the
money away from the church because he knew he was bankrupt at the time
he gave it. And I realized in some ways that was a close question,
but I thought we had to stand up for the proposition that people
should be able to practice their religious convictions.
Secretary Riley and I, in another context, have also
learned as we have gone along in this work that all the religions
obviously share a certain devotion to a certain set of values which
make a big difference in the schools. I want to commend Secretary
Riley for his relentless support of the so-called character education
movement in our schools, which is clearly led in many schools that
had great troubles to reduce drop-out rates, increased performance in
schools, better citizenship in ways that didn't promote any
particular religious views but at least unapologetically advocated
values shared by all major religions.
In this school, one of the reasons I wanted to come here
is because I recognize that this work has been done here. There's a
course in this school called Combatting Intolerance, which deals not
only with racial issues, but also with religious differences, and
studies times in the past when people have been killed in mass
numbers and persecuted because of their religious convictions.
You can make a compelling argument that the tragic war in
Bosnia today is more of a religious war than an ethnic war. The truth
is, biologically, there is no difference in the Serbs, the Croats and
the Muslims. They are Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, and
they are so for historic reasons. But it's really more of a religious
war than an ethnic war when properly viewed. And I think it's very
important that the people in this school are learning that and, in the
process, will come back to that every great religion teaches honesty
and trustworthiness and responsibility and devotion to family, and
charity and compassion toward others.
Our sense of our own religion and our respect for others
has really helped us to work together for two centuries. It's made a
big difference in the way we live and the way we function and our
ability to overcome adversity. The Constitution wouldn't be what it
is without James Madison's religious values. But it's also, frankly,
given us a lot of elbow room. I remember, for example, that Abraham
Lincoln was derided by his opponents because he belonged to no
organized church. But if you read his writings and you study what
happened to him, especially after he came to the White House, he
might have had more spiritual depth than any person ever to hold the
office that I now have the privilege to occupy.
So we have followed this balance, and it has served us
well. Now what I want to talk to you about for a minute is that our
Founders understood that religious freedom basically was a coin with
two sides. The Constitution protected the free exercise of religion,
but prohibited the establishment of religion. It's a careful balance
that's uniquely American. It is the genius of the First Amendment.
It does not, as some people have implied, make us a religion-free
country. It has made us the most religious country in the world.
It does not convert -- let's just take the areas of
greatest controversy now -- all the fights have come over 200 years
over what those two things mean: What does it mean for the
government to establish a religion, and what does it mean for a
government to interfere with the free exercise of religion. The
Religious Freedom Restoration Act was designed to clarify the second
provision -- government interfering with the free exercise of
religion and to say you can do that almost never. You can do that
almost never. (Applause.)
We have had a lot more fights in the last 30 years over
what the government establishment of religion means. And that's what
the whole debate is now over the issue of school prayer, religious
practices in the schools and things of that kind. And I want to talk
about it because our schools are the places where so much of our
hearts are in America and all of our futures are. And I'd like to
begin by just sort of pointing out what's going on today and then
discussing it if I could. And, again, this is always kind of
inflammatory; I want to have a noninflammatory talk about it.
First of all, let me tell you a little about my personal
history. Before the Supreme Court's decision in Engel against Vitale,
which said that the state of New York could not write a prayer that
had to be said in every school in New York every day, school prayer
was as common as apple pie in my hometown. And when I was in junior
high school, it was my responsibility either to start every day by
reading the Bible or get somebody else to do it. Needless to say, I
exerted a lot of energy in finding someone else to do it from time to
time, being a normal 13-year-old boy.
Now, you could say, well, it certainly didn't do any
harm; it might have done a little good. But remember what I told you.
We had two synagogues in my hometown. We also had pretended to be
deeply religious and there were no blacks in my school, they were in a
segregated school. And I can tell you that all of us who were in
there doing it never gave a second thought most of the time to the
fact that we didn't have blacks in our schools and that there were
Jews in the classroom who were probably deeply offended by half the
stuff we were saying or doing -- or maybe made to feel inferior.
I say that to make the point that we have not become
less religious over the last 30 years by saying that schools cannot
impose a particular religion, even if it's a Christian religion and
98 percent of the kids in the schools are Christian and Protestant.
I'm not sure the Catholics were always comfortable with what we did
either. We had a big Catholic population in my school and in my
hometown. But I did that -- I have been a part of this debate we are
talking about. This is a part of my personal life experience. So I
have seen a lot of progress made and I agreed with the Supreme
Court's original decision in Engel v. Vitale.
Now, since then, I've not always agreed with every
decision the Supreme Court made in the area of the First Amendment.
I said the other day I didn't think the decision on the prayer at the
commencement, where the Rabbi was asked to give the nonsectarian
prayer at the commencement -- I didn't agree with that because I
didn't think it any coercion at all. And I thought that people were
not interfered with. And I didn't think it amounted to the
establishment of a religious practice by the government. So I have
not always agreed.
But I do believe that on balance, the direction of the
First Amendment has been very good for America and has made us the
most religious country in the world by keeping the government out of
creating religion, supporting particular religions, interfering, and
interfering with other people's religious practices.
What is giving rise to so much of this debate today I
think is two things. One is the feeling that the schools are special
and a lot of kids are in trouble, and a lot of kids are in trouble
for nonacademic reasons, and we want our kids to have good values and
have a good future.
Let me give you just one example. There is today, being
released, a new study of drug use among young people by the group
that Joe Califano was associated with -- Council for a Drug-Free
America -- massive poll of young people themselves. It's a
fascinating study and I urge all of you to get it. Joe came in a
couple of days ago and briefed me on it. It shows disturbingly that
even though serious drug use is down overall in groups in America,
casual drug use is coming back up among some of our young people who
no longer believe that it's dangerous and have forgotten that's it's
wrong and are basically living in a world that I think is very
And I see it all the time. It's coming back up. Even
though we're investing money and trying to combat it in education and
treatment programs, and supporting things like the DARE program. And
we're breaking more drug rings than every before around the world.
It's almost -- it's very disturbing because it's fundamentally
something that is kind of creeping back in.
But the study shows that there are three major causes
for young people not using drugs. One is they believe that their
future depends upon their not doing it; they're optimistic about the
future. The more optimistic kids are about the future, the less
likely they are to use drugs.
Second is having a strong, positive relationship with
their parents. The closer kids are to their parents and the more
tuned in to them they are, and the more their parents are good role
models, the less likely kids are to use drugs.
You know what the third is? How religious the children
are. The more religious the children are, the less likely they are
to use drugs.
So what's the big fight over religion in the schools and
what does it mean to us and why are people so upset about it? I think
there are basically three reasons. One is, people believe that -- most
Americans believe that if you're religious, personally religious, you
ought to be able to manifest that anywhere at any time, in a public or
private place. Second, I think that most Americans are disturbed if
they think that our government is becoming anti-religious, instead of
adhering to the firm spirit of the First Amendment -- don't establish,
don't interfere with, but respect. And the third thing is people worry
about our national character as manifest in the lives of our children.
The crime rate is going down in almost every major area in America
today, but the rate of violent random crime among very young people is
still going up.
So these questions take on a certain urgency today for
personal reasons and for larger social reasons. And this old debate
that Madison and Jefferson started over 200 years ago is still being
spun out today basically as it relates to what can and cannot be done
in our schools, and the whole question, specific question, of school
prayer, although I would argue it goes way beyond that.
So let me tell you what I think the law is and what
we're trying to do about it, since I like the First Amendment, and I
think we're better off because of it, and I think that if you have
two great pillars -- the government can't establish and the
government can't interfere with -- obviously there are going to be a
thousand different factual cases that will arise at any given time,
and the courts from time to time will make decisions that we don't
all agree with, but the question is, are the pillars the right
pillars, and do we more or less come out in the right place over the
Continue with Part 2 of the speech.