WASHINGTON -- Trying to define a middle ground on the sensitive issue of school prayer, President Clinton proclaimed yesterday that nothing in the Constitution requires public schools to be "religion-free zones."
"There are those who say that values and morals and religions have no place in public education -- I think that is wrong," the president told summer school students at James Madison High School in the Washington suburb of Vienna, Va. "This country needs to be a place where religion grows and flourishes."
Mr. Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, acknowledged that the president's foray into this area is an attempt to blunt a conservative move to amend the Constitution to allow organized school prayer, while also reaching out to Americans who feel that the federal government has become hostile to religion.
This is not the first time that Mr. Clinton has sought a middle ground on a complex issue. But it appears to be the first time this approach has been rewarded with praise from across the political spectrum.
In speaking out on the most divisive issues facing America, Mr. Clinton has often sought a common ground upon which the nation might build a consensus. But on numerous issues -- gay rights, welfare reform, crime control and affirmative action -- his positions have pleased neither side and have sometimes made Mr. Clinton the target.
Yesterday, however, his remarks were welcomed by such liberal organizations as Americans for Democratic Action as well as by conservative groups, such as the Family Research Council.
Jewish groups applauded the president's move, as did Christian church organizations -- from the politically liberal National Council of Churches to the conservative evangelical Christian organizations.
So did People for the American Way, a liberal organization, which often goes to court to combat what it believes is intrusion of religion into schools. The group was dismayed in November when Mr. Clinton suggested -- however briefly -- that he favored a constitutional amendment for a moment of silent prayer.
"We were quite critical of that statement," said Elliot Mincberg, a vice president and legal counsel with People for the American Way. "But this is a much more measured statement. This is a search for common ground, and the common ground is religious liberty."
Darryl Fagin, legislative director of the Americans for Democratic Action, said: "Instead of speaking about these issues in an inflammatory way, he is trying to educate, explaining that the twin pillars of the First Amendment are, first, that the government will not establish religion, but that the other pillar is that government should do nothing to limit the exercise of religion, either."
Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, which is aligned closely with the social conservatives in the Republican Party, said he believed Mr. Clinton's stance was motivated, in part, by next year's election but added, "I see his remarks as a positive, overall, in moving the country in the right direction."
"This is a tremendous turn-around for a Democratic Party that in just the last election cycle was attacking religious conservatives for getting involved in the process," said Mike Russell, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition.
Mr. Russell said that his organization still favors a constitutional amendment to legalize school prayer, but he added that he believes Mr. Clinton is going in the right direction.
"We were encouraged by his statement today," he said.
In insisting that some public school administrators and teachers have gone far beyond the requirements of the 1962 Supreme Court ruling that banned organized prayer from public schools, Mr. Clinton used the same kind of anecdotes cited by conservatives, from former President Ronald Reagan to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"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," Mr. Clinton said. "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."
At the same time, in insisting that the First Amendment already guarantees broad freedoms for students, the president built a case that it need not be changed.
"In doing so, he did the American people a great service," said Mark J. Pelavin of the American Jewish Congress. "I thought the president's statements were right on."
To ensure that public school districts understand what he believes the Constitution requires of them, the president announced that he has directed the Education Department to issue a nonbinding directive before the school year begins.
The terms of that directive include the following:
* Students may pray on their own, distribute religious literature and discuss religion on school grounds with each other, so long as they do not disrupt other school activities or coerce other students into participating.
* If a school opens its facilities to private groups, it must make its facilities available "on the same terms" to organization of privately sponsored baccalaureate services.
* Public schools may not provide religious instruction but may teach about religion, including the Bible, in courses on literature, history, history of religion, comparative religion or other such subjects.
* Students cannot be barred from expressing religious beliefs in artwork projects or homework assignments, and teachers must grade it "by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance."
"There are those who do believe our schools should be value-neutral and that religion has no place inside the schools," Mr. Clinton said. "But I think that wrongly interprets the idea of the wall between church and state. They are not the walls of the school."
Justice Department and Education Department officials conceded that Mr. Clinton's directive neither makes new law nor carries the force of law. It is merely the administration's summation of what the administration believes the present law allows and requires. Disputes at the local level will still have to be resolved in the courts.
It could, however, provide valuable expert advice to some of the nation's 15,000 school districts, said Oliver Thomas, an ordained minister and lawyer for the National Council of Churches.