Guidance on religion in schools

Sunday, December 19, 1999

On Dec. 18, President Clinton took an historic step that dramatically advances the cause of religious liberty in public education.

The president used his Saturday radio address to announce that the Department of Education will send a set of religious-liberty guidelines to all public schools in the United States.

This unprecedented mailing is highly significant for two important reasons:

  1. 1. For the first time in our history, every public school will have clear, constitutional guidance on the proper role of religion in the schools under current law.

  2. These guidelines are not from “the left” or “the right.” They represent a consensus reached by religious and educational groups from across the political and religious spectrum.

  3. If principals, teachers, parents and community leaders pay close attention to these guidelines, we may finally end much of the confusion and conflict that has divided Americans for more than 150 years over the issue of religious expression in schools.

    The packet will contain five First Amendment guides:

    • “Religious Expression in Public Schools” enumerates the religious-liberty rights of students under current court rulings. It describes, among other things, the right of students to pray alone or in groups, to share their faith with each other, to form religious clubs in secondary schools and to distribute religious literature to their classmates. The contents are based on a joint statement of current law issued by 35 religious and civil-liberties groups.

    • “A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools” answers key questions on how to teach about religion in ways that are constitutional and educational. Published by the First Amendment Center, this guide is endorsed by 22 organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Anti-Defamation League, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Council on Islamic Education, both teachers' unions and the National School Boards Association.

    • “Public Schools and Religious Communities” explains how schools and faith communities can work together in ways that are permissible under the First Amendment. It provides guidance on such topics as mentoring programs, crisis counseling and released-time education. Drafted by the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Congress and the First Amendment Center, this publication is endorsed by the U.S. Catholic Conference, the American Association of School Administrators and nine other national groups.

    • “How Faith Communities Support Children's Learning in Public Schools” is a U.S. Department of Education publication that describes examples of effective and constitutional partnerships between religious communities and public schools. After-school programs, tutorials, school-safety initiatives and other successful collaborations are featured.

    • “A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools” is a joint publication of the National PTA and the First Amendment Center, offering concise information to parents on student rights, excusal requests and teaching about religion in the curriculum.

    • Each of these documents articulates a shared vision of religious liberty in our schools that is fully consistent with the First Amendment and broadly supported by numerous religious and educational groups.

      But guidelines from national groups are only the starting point for finding common ground in local communities. Now parents, administrators, teachers, school board members, religious and civic leaders must work together to ensure that the First Amendment's religious-liberty principles are understood and applied in every classroom of every school.

      The full texts of these guidelines are available at the U.S. Department of Education's Web site or the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center's Web site.