1995 SPEECH BY
PRESIDENT CLINTON ON
The Supreme Court is like everybody else, it's imperfect
-- and so are we. Maybe they're right and we're wrong. But we are
going to have these differences. The fundamental balance that has
been struck it seems to me has been very good for America, but what
is not good today is that people assume that there is a
positive-antireligious bias in the cumulative impact of these court
decisions with which our administration -- the Justice Department and
the Secretary of Education and the President -- strongly disagree.
So let me tell you what I think the law is today and what I have
instructed the Department of Education and the Department of Justice
to do about it.
The First Amendment does not -- I will say again -- does
not convert our schools into religion-free zones. If a student is
told he can't wear a yarmulke, for example, we have an obligation to
tell the school the law says the student can, most definitely, wear a
yarmulke to school. 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.
There are those who do believe our schools should be
value-neutral and that religion has no place inside the schools. But
I think that wrongly interprets the idea of the wall between church
and state. They are not the walls of the school.
There are those who say that values and morals and
religions have no place in public education; I think that is wrong.
First of all, the consequences of having no values are not neutral.
The violence in our streets -- not value neutral. The movies we see
aren't value neutral. Television is not value neutral. Too often we
see expressions of human degradation, immorality, violence and
debasement of the human soul that have more influence and take more
time and occupy more space in the minds of our young people than any
of the influences that are felt at school anyway. Our schools,
therefore, must be a barricade against this kind of degradation. And
we can do it without violating the First Amendment.
I am deeply troubled that so many Americans feel that
their faith is threatened by the mechanisms that are designed to
protect their faith. Over the past decade we have seen a real rise
in these kind of cultural tensions in America. Some people even say
we have a culture war. There have been books written about culture
war, the culture of disbelief, all these sort of trends arguing that
many Americans genuinely feel that a lot of our social problems today
have arisen in large measure because the country led by the
government has made an assault on religious convictions. That is
fueling a lot of this debate today over what can and cannot be done
in the schools.
Much of the tension stems from the idea that religion is
simply not welcome at all in what Professor Carter at Yale has called
the public square. Americans feel that instead of celebrating their
love for God in public, they're being forced to hide their faith
behind closed doors. That's wrong. 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. That has happened and
it has to stop. It is crucial that government does not dictate or
demand specific religious views, but equally crucial that government
doesn't prevent the expression of specific religious views.
When the First Amendment is invoked as an obstacle to
private expression of religion it is being misused. Religion has a
proper place in private and a proper place in public because the
public square belongs to all Americans. It's especially important
that parents feel confident that their children can practice religion.
That's why some families have been frustrated to see their children
denied even the most private forms of religious expression in public
schools. It is rare, but these things have actually happened.
I know that 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 student
religious groups haven't been allowed to publicize their meetings in
the same way that nonreligious groups can. Some students have been
prevented even from saying grace before lunch. That is rare, but it
has happened and it is wrong. Wherever and whenever the religious
rights of children are threatened or suppressed, we must move quickly
to correct it. We want to make it easier and more acceptable for
people to express and to celebrate their faith.
Now, just because the First Amendment sometimes gets the
balance a little bit wrong in specific decisions by specific people
doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the First Amendment. I
still believe the First Amendment as it is presently written permits
the American people to do what they need to do. That's what I
believe. (Applause.) Let me give you some examples and you see if
First of all, the First Amendment does not require
students to leave their religion at the schoolhouse door. We wouldn't
want students to leave the values they learn from religion, like
honesty and sharing and kindness, behind the schoolhouse door --
behind at the schoolhouse door, and reinforcing those values is an
important part of every school's mission.
Some school officials and teachers and parents believe
that the Constitution forbids any religious expression at all in
public schools. That is wrong. Our courts have made it clear that
that is wrong. It is also not a good idea. Religion is too important
to our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools.
Once again, it shouldn't be demanded, but as long as it is not
sponsored by school officials and doesn't interfere with other
children's rights, it mustn't be denied.
For example, students can pray privately and
individually whenever they want. They can say grace themselves
before lunch. There are times when they can pray out loud together.
Student religious clubs in high schools can and should be treated
just like any other extracurricular club. They can advertise their
meetings, meet on school grounds, use school facilities just as other
clubs can. When students can choose to read a book to themselves,
they have every right to read the Bible or any other religious text
Teachers can and certainly should teach about religion
and the contributions it has made to our history, our values, our
knowledge, to our music and our art in our country and around the
world, and to the development of the kind of people we are. Students
can also pray to themselves -- preferably before tests, as I used to
Students should feel free to express their religion and
their beliefs in homework, through art work, during class
presentations, as long as it's relevant to the assignment. If
students can distribute flyers or pamphlets that have nothing to do
with the school, they can distribute religious flyers and pamphlets
on the same basis. If students can wear T-shirts advertising sports
teams, rock groups or politicians, they can also wear T-shirts that
promote religion. If certain subjects or activities are
objectionable to their students or their parents because of their
religious beliefs, then schools may, and sometimes they must, excuse
the students from those activities.
Finally, even though the schools can't advocate
religious beliefs, as I said earlier, they should teach mainstream
values and virtues. The fact that some of these values happen to be
religious values does not mean that they cannot be taught in our
All these forms of religious expression and worship are
permitted and protected by the First Amendment. That doesn't change
the fact that some students haven't been allowed to express their
beliefs in these ways. What we have to do is to work together to
help all Americans understand exactly what the First Amendment does.
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. We are allowed to believe and worship as we choose
without the government telling any of us what we can and cannot do.
It is in that spirit that I am today directing the
Secretary of Education and the Attorney General to provide every
school district in America before school starts this fall with a
detailed explanation of the religious expression permitted in
schools, including all the things that I've talked about today. I
hope parents, students, educators and religious leaders can use this
directive as a starting point. I hope it helps them to understand
their differences, to protect student's religious rights, and to find
common ground. I believe we can find that common ground.
This past April a broad coalition of religious and legal
groups -- Christian and Jewish, conservative and liberal, Supreme
Court advocates and Supreme Court critics -- put themselves on the
solution side of this debate. They produced a remarkable document
called "Religion in Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current
Law." They put aside their deep differences and said, we all agree
on what kind of religious expression the law permits in our schools.
My directive borrows heavily and gratefully from their wise and
thoughtful statement. This is a subject that could have easily
divided the men and women that came together to discuss it. But they
moved beyond their differences and that may be as important as the
specific document they produced.
I also want to mention over 200 religious and civic
leaders who signed the Williamsburg Charter
in Virginia in 1988. That charter reaffirms the core principles of the
First Amendment. We can live together with our deepest differences
and all be stronger for it.
The charter signers are impressive in their own right
and all the more impressive for their differences of opinion,
including Presidents Ford and Carter; Chief Justice Rehnquist and the
late Chief Justice Burger; Senator Dole and former Governor Dukakis;
Bill Bennett and Lane Kirkland, the president of the AFL-CIO; Norman
Lear and Phyllis Schlafly signed it together -- (laughter) -- Coretta
Scott King and Reverend James Dobson.
These people were able to stand up publicly because
religion is a personal and private thing for Americans which has to
have some public expression. That's how it is for me. I'm pretty
old-fashioned about these things. I really do believe in the constancy
of sin and the constant possibility of forgiveness, the reality of
redemption and the promise of a future life. But I'm also a Baptist
who believe that salvation is primarily personal and private, that my
relationship is directly with God and not through any intermediary.
People -- other people can have different views. And
I've spent a good part of my life trying to understand different
religious views, celebrate them and figure out what brings us
I will say again, the First Amendment is a gift to us.
And the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in broad ways so that
it could grow and change, but hold fast to certain principles. They
knew -- they knew that all people were fallible and would make
mistakes from time to time. And I have -- as I said, there are times
when the Supreme Court makes a decision, if I disagree with it, one
of us is wrong. There's another possibility: both of us could be
wrong. (Laughter.) That's the way it is in human affairs.
But what I want to say to the American people and what I
want to say to you is that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson did not
intend to drive a stake in the heart of religion and to drive it out
of our public life. What they intended to do was to set up a system
so that we could bring religion into our public life and into our
private life without any of us telling the other what to do.
This is a big deal today. One county in America, Los
Angeles County, has over 150 different racial and ethnic groups in it
-- over 150 different. How many religious views do you suppose are
in those groups? How many? Every significant religion in the world
is represented in significant numbers in one American county, and
many smaller religious groups -- in one American county.
We have got to get this right. We have got to get this
right. And we have to keep this balance. This country needs to be a
place where religion grows and flourishes.
Don't you believe that if every kid in every difficult
neighborhood in America were in a religious institution on the
weekends, the synagogue on Saturday, a church on Sunday, a mosque on
Friday, don't you really believe that the drug rate, the crime rate,
the violence rate, the sense of self-destruction would go way down and
the quality of the character of this country would go way up?
But don't you also believe that if for the last 200 years
we had had a state governed religion, people would be bored with it,
think that it would -- (laughter and applause) -- they would think it
had been compromised by politicians, shaved around the edges, imposed
on people who didn't really content to it, and we wouldn't have
250,000 houses of worship in America? (Applause.) I mean, we
It may be perfect -- imperfect, the First Amendment, but
it is the nearest thing ever created in any human society for the
promotion of religion and religious values because it left us free to
do it. And I strongly believe that the government has made a lot of
mistakes which we have tried to roll back in interfering with that
around the edges. That's what the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
is all about. That's what this directive that Secretary Riley and
the Justice Department and I have worked so hard on is all about.
That's what our efforts to bring in people of different religious
views are all about. And I strongly believe that we have erred when
we have rolled it back too much. And I hope that we can have a
partnership with our churches in many ways to reach out to the young
people who need the values, the hope, the belief, the convictions
that comes with faith, and the sense of security in a very uncertain
and rapidly changing world.
But keep in mind we have a chance to do it because of
the heritage of America and the protection of the First Amendment.
We have to get it right.