VIENNA, Va. -- Attempting to define "common ground" on inflammatory social issues, President Clinton said yesterday the First Amendment allows students broad freedom of religious expression in public schools -- including praying silently "before tests, as I used to do."
Declaring that religion belongs in the "public square," Mr. Clinton directed his administration to convey that message to the nation's 15,000 school districts before the new academic year. His advice to educators that existing law permits students to wear yarmulkes or bring Bibles to class could undermine efforts by Rep. Ernest Jim Istook of Oklahoma and other congressional Republicans to amend the Constitution to allow organized classroom prayer.
An amendment has mainstream appeal. In a Time-CNN poll last November, 46 percent of 800 adults said a prayer amendment was a "high priority."
Mr. Clinton said the First Amendment does not need fixing, despite controversial Supreme Court interpretations of its mandated separation of church and state.
"The First Amendment keeps us all on common ground," Mr. Clinton said in a speech at James Madison High School in this Washington suburb. "It protects freedom of religion by allowing students to pray" and by "preventing schools from telling them how and when and what to pray," he said.
On Mr. Clinton's order, the Justice and Education Departments prepared a legal memorandum for school districts, released Wednesday. "Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones," the document said.
Among the memorandum's guidelines: Students may say grace before cafeteria meals; pray in voluntary groups between classes; hold religious club meetings on school grounds after hours if secular clubs may do so; and submit homework projects on religious themes.