The President Announces Release of Revised Religious Guidelines for America's Public Schools May 29, 1998
"Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the school house door." --President Clinton, July 12, 1995The President today in his radio address expressed his strong support for religious freedom and expression in America's public schools as the U.S. Department of Education released revised presidential guidelines on school prayer in light of the Supreme Court ruling in Boerne v. Flores which held the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to be unconstitutional. Citing the success of the First Amendment in protecting America's religious freedom for over 200 years the President urged Congress not to tamper with the Bill of Rights and to recognize that religious freedom is alive and well in our nation's public schools.
Guidelines Are Effective: Following the release of the presidential guidelines in 1995, the National School Boards Association wrote to Secretary Riley to tell him that NSBA had evidence that the guidelines had an impact. NSBA writes: "In the past ten years, we received numerous inquiries over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays on how schools can best handle these events. This year, the number of calls has dropped dramatically. We believe this reduction of concern is a result of the help they received through the Guidelines"
School Board Settles Suit Using Guidelines: In 1996 the St. Louis School Board adopted a new policy that more clearly defines a student's rights regarding school prayer and other issues. While the school district had allowed certain activities, it had never spelled them out before. The policies were adopted as part of a settlement of a suit by a student who claimed he had been disciplined for praying in school. The policy was taken from the guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education. This student landed in the national spotlight when U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich mentioned his case on NBC?s "Meet the Press".
Guidelines Offer Clarity to Church Groups: In Houston, TX, Christ the King Catholic Church religious education was reaching only a small portion of their largely Hispanic population of children. At the same time, the Houston Independent School District adopted a district wide program called Project Reconnect, which directs schools to cooperate with the community and parents to provide enrichment opportunities for students. Following the issuing of the 1995 statement of principles by President Clinton and Secretary Riley, the church approached the school about using its facilities for religious instruction after school hours. Currently in the Houston public schools, several other faith communities offer after school activities in Bible study, drama, choir, and prayer groups.
Parents Ask for Help and Get It: In response to the release of the Presidential guidelines in 1995, the National PTA and the Freedom Forum used the guidelines to develop a "Parents Guide to Religion in Public Schools" which put the guidelines into an easily understandable question and answer format. To date over 250,000 copies of this brochure have been distributed to interested schools and parents.
Changes in the guidelines since 1995: The guidelines are exactly the same as those issued by the Department of Education in August, 1995 except for the sections on student garb and religious excusals which have been revised to reflect the Supreme Court's decision in Boerne v. Flores holding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) unconstitutional. Without RFRA, the rights of students with respect to student garb and religious excusals are not as absolute. Schools now have the discretion to excuse students from lessons that are inconsistent with their religious belifes and schools have the discretion to decide whether students can wear religious garb such as yarmulkes and head scarves to class.
President Endorses Riley call for Action: The President announced today his strong support for Secretary Riley's three recommendations to local school boards and teachers:: (1) to recognize that in an increasingly diverse religious society that every school board should adopt a policy on religious expression (2) to inform teachers early on about the role of religion in public schools through workshops and schools of education (3)to actively inform parents about student's rights to religious expression as well as freedom of conscience.