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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release May 30, 1998
                            PRESS BRIEFING

The Briefing Room

3:13 P.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: Welcome back. This is an embargoed briefing. This briefing is embargoed until, as usual, until 10:06 a.m. Saturday. That's tomorrow, May 30th. This is, of course, Secretary of Education Dick Riley, and he is going to speak about the very important announcement made by the President in his radio address.

SECRETARY RILEY: Earlier today, the President, in his taped radio address, expressed his strong support for private religious expression in our public schools as my Department prepares to release revised religious guidelines. The President went on to affirm his strong support for the First Amendment of our nation's Bill of Rights.

The President believes, as I do, that there is no need for another constitutional amendment on religious freedom that is now supported by some members of Congress. There's no need to tamper with the First Amendment; it's never been done and we don't need to start now.

The First Amendment has protected America's religious freedom for over 200 years. As a result, the United States is the most religious free country in the world. And as some of you may remember, President Clinton directed me almost three years ago to develop guidelines on religious expression in our public schools and to send them to every superintendent in the nation, which I did.

These guidelines had one clear purpose: To clear up much of the confusion that had developed over the last 30 years about prayer and other forms of religious expression in our public schools. I believe that these guidelines have served that purpose admirably. Religious freedom is alive and well in America's public schools where a developing, new common ground that has allowed people for the first time to lower their voices on the often contentious issue of school prayer.

Students are free to pray, to say Grace,to join bible clubs, or to simply follow the dictates of their conscience. At the same time, students are protected from state-sponsored religion in schools, and they're protected from religious harassment and coercion as well.

Today, we are re-releasing the guidelines that I originally released three years ago to reiterate their importance and to reflect the Supreme Court decision to strike down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Two sections of the guidelines on religious excusals and student garb were based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Now we've amended the guidelines to reflect that change, and otherwise the guidelines remain the same as those that went to the schools in 1995. In releasing the revised guidelines, I've encouraged our nation's public schools to take three positive steps:

First, every school board should develop a policy on religious expression based on these guidelines. Second, these guidelines only work if they're taken out of filing cabinets and gotten in the hands of teachers -- teachers need to understand how to teach about religion and how to handle these matters of the First Amendment. And third, finally, the fastest way to build a new common ground when it comes to religion in the public schools is to let parents -- parents -- know just how much religious freedom is really allowed in the public school. When people don't know what's permitted, they tend to get confused and get caught up in divisions.

So, I'm urging schools to reach out to parents. One of the reasons we're sending these guidelines now, here at the end of the school year, is to make sure that schools do have ample time to develop their own policies for a new school year during the course of the summer. And that's my statement. I'd be happy to respond to questions.

Q Well, obviously the wall -- the Constitutional wall between state and religion and so forth is being torn down by this administration. There's no question about it -- there's been a chipping away. And, I mean, there are places to pray -- you can pray in school without having to be organized -- what you're allowing.

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I disagree with you --

Q -- pray yourself, you can go to church, you can go to synagogue, you can go --

SECRETARY RILEY: I disagree with your premise, Helen. I think the -- we're not chipping away at anything. We're really building a strong foundation in support of the First Amendment, rather than supporting some of these efforts to chip it away. And the interpretations that come out of these guidelines are interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions. And they were reached by a group of people, the joint group, which involved a lot of different religions, the ACLU, lawyers who represented a lot of churches on all different spectrums of religion. And they came together and had long discussions. We were involved in that, as the Justice Department was. And this is -- the guidelines came out of those analyses. We didn't change anything.

Q Well, why does it have to be in the schools? Why does it have to be in the public schools?

SECRETARY RILEY: Because that's where the Supreme Court decisions dealt with. That's the question. When you bring all the religions into the public space, or the public school, you do have a very delicate issue. You have the religious freedom of the individual. Every child in that public school has religious freedom. And the Constitution permits that and protects it. And also, they are protected against a church religion coming from the state. So I think the two stool -- two legs of the stool of the Constitution, we fully respect, and the person has their own religious freedom in that public space.

The teacher is in control of the classroom. The principal is in control of the school. Nobody in a religious group can do anything in the school that's not permitted for other groups. And all these Supreme Court decisions said is that you cannot discriminate against religious groups in the public space if you're letting other groups use the public space. If you can let a group of young partisans in a political party use an after-school space, then the -- you also have to make that available to a religious group if they want to use it.

It's really a -- but the point being is that President Clinton and Dick Riley are not chipping away at anything. We are --we used a process to interpret what the current Supreme Court decisions were, and we pulled all these different forces together, and they have agreed that these guidelines are what the court says.

Some areas, the Court's not clear. The Court is not clear, for example, on like a student-led prayer at a graduation ceremony. A case came out yesterday -- a Circuit Court case on that -- that said, under those circumstances it could be. Previous cases, some suggest -- some said no. And it depends on several things -- how involved was the school in the prayer; was there a captive audience; was it really student initiated. And those are the cases. So we in the guidelines stayed out of that because that is not clear. And we made that very clear in the guidelines. That is still up for interpretation.

Q Could you be more specific on the two new guidelines?

SECRETARY RILEY: The two things -- the two issues that were different in the new guidelines that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was declared unconstitutional and the issues that dealt with that were student garb and religious excusals. And they -- so when that goes out, we do have the situation that we don't have a federal act that deals directly with those two issues. It still applies in federal government, but not state and local government. That was basically, I think, what the decision said.

But we so -- so schools still, however, clearly may allow students to wear religious garb and that kind of thing. And we would encourage that to do that. But this act doesn't require it. So we had to make that very clear. But it's up to them to do. And we certainly think that they should.

Anything further? Well, I thank you all very much.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 3:22 P.M. EDT