Clinton issues expanded guidelines for religious expression in public schools

Monday, December 20, 1999

On Dec. 18, the Clinton administration unveiled an expanded version of its 1995 guidelines on religious liberties in the public schools.

Along with the expanded guidelines, President Clinton said he would send to the nation's more than 100,000 public schools three First Amendment Center publications on religion and the public schools.

The administration's new guidelines, the third revision since they were released in 1995, elaborate on the proper role of religious expression in public schools and take note of recent Supreme Court rulings on the subject.

Clinton, moreover, called for greater involvement of religious institutions in public schools.

'Across America, schools and faith-based organizations are telling us they want to build new and effective partnerships, like the large number of faith-based groups involved in America Reads, or the Shiloh Baptist-Seaton Elementary School partnership, which offers after-school activities here in Washington, D.C.,' Clinton said in his Dec. 18 radio address to the nation.

'Faith-based organizations in schools, though different in many ways, do often share important goals, expanding opportunities to learn, lifting children's lives,' Clinton said. 'Our new guidelines will help them work together on common ground to meet constitutional muster, to avoid making students uncomfortable because they come from different religious traditions, while helping students make the most of their God-given talents.'

The guidelines for partnerships between organized religion and the public schools includes a list of do's and don'ts.

'Every part of the community can do its part to encourage adults to take time out of their busy schedules to support the work of our nation's schools,' the guidelines state. 'Faith communities can be important participants in these partnerships. For example, members of faith communities can act as tutors and mentors to help children learn to read and write. They can also work with other members of the community to ensure the safety of children in positive after-school activities.'

School officials, however, are not to encourage student participation in religious activities or to reward or punish students 'based on their willingness to participate in any activity of a partnership with a religious organization,' the guidelines state.

Civil rights groups nationwide have raised concerns about the involvement of churches and other religious groups in public school activities. Civil libertarians argue that such involvement can subvert church-state separation.

Last April the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a Texas school district policy of allowing a Christian-run counseling program. In 1995, the Beaumont Independent School District created the 'Clergy in the Schools' program, which allowed Protestant Christians to counsel groups of students. The court ruled that the program effectively promoted Christianity in public schools and therefore was a First Amendment violation.

The D.C.-based nonprofit group Americans United for Separation of Church and State said Clinton's partnership proposals raised constitutional concerns.

'The bottom line is that the First Amendment calls for separation of church and state, not for a partnership between church and state,' Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United, said. 'There are a number of aggressive, proselytizing-minded groups that have looked for a way to influence the public schools for almost 40 years now. Although the federal courts have barred them from doing so, our group worries that Clinton's new initiative opens the door to them. We have to be honest with ourselves that there are some denominations that seek to proselytize and to win converts among children in the public schools.'

Boston, however, said his group still supported the administration's 1995 guidelines on religious expression in public schools. Religious involvement in the public schools is fine, he said, but it needs to be watched carefully. 'The answer is to have religious groups operate purely voluntary after-school programs at churches or synagogues.'

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, called Clinton's actions a breakthrough.

'This is neither imposing religion in schools, which is wrong and unconstitutional and unjust, nor is it leaving religion out, which is also wrong and I would say unconstitutional and certainly unjust,' Haynes said.

Haynes helped prepare the three First Amendment Center publications that the administration is sending to public schools. The publications are: A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, Public Schools and Religious Communities and A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.

The Public Schools & Religious Communities guide states, in part, that educational programs operated by organized religion and public schools are permissible if such partnership programs are also open to groups other than religious ones, students' grades aren't affected by participation in the programs, and student participation in religious programs is not conditioned on the student's belief in or membership of a religion.

After Clinton's radio address, Haynes told reporters at the White House that the guides would allow 'faith communities' to help public schools 'in a way that doesn't violate the rights of any of our citizens.'