THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release July 12, 1995
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
ON RELIGIOUS LIBERTY IN AMERICA
James Madison High School
10:58 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Secretary Riley, for the
introduction, but more for your outstanding leadership of the
Department of Education and the work you have done not only to
increase the investment of our country in education, but also to lift
the quality and the standards of education and to deal forthrightly
with some of the more difficult, but important issues in education
that go to the heart of the character of the young people we build in
Superintendent Spillane, congratulations on your award
and the work you are doing here in this district. Dr. Clark, Ms.
Lubetkin. To Danny Murphy, I thought he gave such a good speech I
could imagine him on a lot of platforms in the years ahead.
(Laughter.) He did a very fine job.
Mayor Robinson, and to the Board of Supervisors -- Chair
Katherine Hanley, and to all the religious leaders, parents, students
who are here; the teachers; and especially to the James Madison
teachers, thank you for coming today.
Last week at my alma mater, Georgetown, I had a chance
to do something that I hope to do more often as President, to have a
genuine conversation with the American people about the best way for
us to move forward as a nation and to resolve some of the great
questions that are nagging at us today. I believe, as I have said
repeatedly, that our nation faces two great challenges: first of
all, to restore the American dream of opportunity, and the American
tradition or responsibility; and second, to bring our country
together amidst all of our diversity in a stronger community so that
we can find common ground and move forward together.
In my first two years as President I worked harder on
the first question, how to get the economy going, how to deal with
the specific problems of the country, how to inspire more
responsibility through things like welfare reform and child support
enforcement. But I have come to believe that unless we can solve the
second problem we'll never really solve the first one. Unless we can
find a way to honestly and openly debate our differences and find
common ground, to celebrate all the diversity of America and still
give people a chance to live in the way they think is right, so that
we are stronger for our differences, not weaker, we won't be able to
meet the economic and other challenges before us. And therefore, I
have decided that I should spend some more time in some conversations
about things Americans care a lot about and that they're deeply
Today I want to talk about a conversation -- about a
subject that can provoke a fight in nearly any country town or on any
city street corner in America -- religion. It's a subject that should
not drive us apart. And we have a mechanism as old as our Constitution
for bringing us together.
This country, after all, was founded by people of
profound faith who mentioned Divine Providence and the guidance of
God twice in the Declaration of Independence. They were searching
for a place to express their faith freely without persecution. We
take it for granted today that that's so in this country, but it was
not always so. And it certainly has not always been so across the
world. Many of the people who were our first settlers came here
primarily because they were looking for a place where they could
practice their faith without being persecuted by the government.
Here in Virginia's soil, as the Secretary of Education
has said, the oldest and deepest roots of religious liberty can be
found. The First Amendment was modeled on Thomas Jefferson's
Statutes of Religious Liberty for Virginia. He thought so much of it
that he asked that on his gravestone it be said not that he was
President, not that he had been Vice President or Secretary of State,
but that he was the founder of the University of Virginia, the author
of the Declaration of Independence and the author of the Statues of
Religious Liberty for the state of Virginia.
And of course, no one did more than James Madison to put
the entire Bill of Rights in our Constitution, and especially, the
Religious freedom is literally our first freedom. It is
the first thing mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. And as
it opens, it says Congress cannot make a law that either establishes
a religion or restricts the free exercise of religion. Now, as with
every provision of our Constitution, that law has had to be
interpreted over the years, and it has in various ways that some of
us agree with and some of us disagree with. But one thing is
indisputable: the First Amendment has protected our freedom to be
religious or not religious, as we choose, with the consequence that
in this highly secular age the United States is clearly the most
conventionally religious country in the entire world, at least the
entire industrialized world.
We have more than 250,000 places of worship. More
people go to church here every week, or to synagogue, or to a mosque
or other place of worship than in any other country in the world.
More people believe religion is directly important to their lives
than in any other advanced, industrialized country in the world. And
it is not an accident. It is something that has always been a part
of our life.
I grew up in Arkansas which is, except for West
Virginia, probably the state that's most heavily Southern Baptist
Protestant in the country. But we had two synagogues and a Greek
Orthodox church in my hometown. Not so long ago in the heart of our
agricultural country in Eastern Arkansas one of our universities did
a big outreach to students in the Middle East, and before you know
it, out there on this flat land where there was no building more than
two stories high, there rose a great mosque. And all the farmers
from miles around drove in to see what the mosque was like and try to
figure out what was going on there. (Laughter.)
This is a remarkable country. And I have tried to be
faithful to that tradition that we have of the First Amendment. It's
something that's very important to me.
Secretary Riley mentioned when I was at Georgetown,
Georgetown is a Jesuit school, a Catholic school. All the Catholics
were required to teach theology, and those of us who weren't Catholic
took a course in world's religion, which we called Buddhism for
Baptists. (Laughter.) And I began a sort of love affair with the
religions that I did not know anything about before that time.
It's a personal thing to me because of my own religious
faith and the faith of my family. And I've always felt that in order
for me to be free to practice my faith in this country, I had to let
other people be as free as possible to practice theirs, and that the
government had an extraordinary obligation to bend over backwards not
to do anything to impose any set of views on any group of people or
to allow others to do it under the cover of law.
That's why I was very proud -- one of the proudest things
I've been able to do as President was to sign into law the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. And it was designed to reverse the
decision of the Supreme Court that essentially made it pretty easy for
government, in the pursuit of its legitimate objectives, to restrict
the exercise of people's religious liberties. This law basically
said -- I won't use the legalese -- the bottom line was that if the
government is going to restrict anybody's legitimate exercise of
religion they have to have an extraordinarily good reason and no other
way to achieve their compelling objective other than to do this. You
have to bend over backwards to avoid getting in the way of people's
legitimate exercise of their religious convictions. That's what that
This is something I've tried to do throughout my career.
When I was governor, for example, we were having -- of Arkansas in
the '80s -- you may remember this -- there were religious leaders
going to jail in America because they ran child care centers that
they refused to have certified by the state because they said it
undermined their ministry. We solved that problem in our state.
There were people who were prepared to go to jail over the home
schooling issue in the '80s because they said it was part of their
religious ministry. We solved that problem in our state.
With the Religious Freedom Restoration Act we made it
possible, clearly, in areas that were previously ambiguous for Native
Americans, for American Jews, for Muslims to practice the full range
of their religious practices when they might have otherwise come in
contact with some governmental regulation.
And in a case that was quite important to the
Evangelicals in our country, I instructed the Justice Department to
change our position after the law passed on a tithing case where a
family had been tithing to their church and the man declared
bankruptcy, and the government took the position they could go get the
money away from the church because he knew he was bankrupt at the time
he gave it. And I realized in some ways that was a close question,
but I thought we had to stand up for the proposition that people
should be able to practice their religious convictions.
Secretary Riley and I, in another context, have also
learned as we have gone along in this work that all the religions
obviously share a certain devotion to a certain set of values which
make a big difference in the schools. I want to commend Secretary
Riley for his relentless support of the so-called character education
movement in our schools, which is clearly led in many schools that
had great troubles to reduce drop-out rates, increased performance in
schools, better citizenship in ways that didn't promote any
particular religious views but at least unapologetically advocated
values shared by all major religions.
In this school, one of the reasons I wanted to come here
is because I recognize that this work has been done here. There's a
course in this school called Combatting Intolerance, which deals not
only with racial issues, but also with religious differences, and
studies times in the past when people have been killed in mass
numbers and persecuted because of their religious convictions.
You can make a compelling argument that the tragic war in
Bosnia today is more of a religious war than an ethnic war. The truth
is, biologically, there is no difference in the Serbs, the Croats and
the Muslims. They are Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, and
they are so for historic reasons. But it's really more of a religious
war than an ethnic war when properly viewed. And I think it's very
important that the people in this school are learning that and, in the
process, will come back to that every great religion teaches honesty
and trustworthiness and responsibility and devotion to family, and
charity and compassion toward others.
Our sense of our own religion and our respect for others
has really helped us to work together for two centuries. It's made a
big difference in the way we live and the way we function and our
ability to overcome adversity. The Constitution wouldn't be what it
is without James Madison's religious values. But it's also, frankly,
given us a lot of elbow room. I remember, for example, that Abraham
Lincoln was derided by his opponents because he belonged to no
organized church. But if you read his writings and you study what
happened to him, especially after he came to the White House, he
might have had more spiritual depth than any person ever to hold the
office that I now have the privilege to occupy.
So we have followed this balance, and it has served us
well. Now what I want to talk to you about for a minute is that our
Founders understood that religious freedom basically was a coin with
two sides. The Constitution protected the free exercise of religion,
but prohibited the establishment of religion. It's a careful balance
that's uniquely American. It is the genius of the First Amendment.
It does not, as some people have implied, make us a religion-free
country. It has made us the most religious country in the world.
It does not convert -- let's just take the areas of
greatest controversy now -- all the fights have come over 200 years
over what those two things mean: What does it mean for the
government to establish a religion, and what does it mean for a
government to interfere with the free exercise of religion. The
Religious Freedom Restoration Act was designed to clarify the second
provision -- government interfering with the free exercise of
religion and to say you can do that almost never. You can do that
almost never. (Applause.)
We have had a lot more fights in the last 30 years over
what the government establishment of religion means. And that's what
the whole debate is now over the issue of school prayer, religious
practices in the schools and things of that kind. And I want to talk
about it because our schools are the places where so much of our
hearts are in America and all of our futures are. And I'd like to
begin by just sort of pointing out what's going on today and then
discussing it if I could. And, again, this is always kind of
inflammatory; I want to have a noninflammatory talk about it.
First of all, let me tell you a little about my personal
history. Before the Supreme Court's decision in Engel against Vitale,
which said that the state of New York could not write a prayer that
had to be said in every school in New York every day, school prayer
was as common as apple pie in my hometown. And when I was in junior
high school, it was my responsibility either to start every day by
reading the Bible or get somebody else to do it. Needless to say, I
exerted a lot of energy in finding someone else to do it from time to
time, being a normal 13-year-old boy.
Now, you could say, well, it certainly didn't do any
harm; it might have done a little good. But remember what I told you.
We had two synagogues in my hometown. We also had pretended to be
deeply religious and there were no blacks in my school, they were in a
segregated school. And I can tell you that all of us who were in
there doing it never gave a second thought most of the time to the
fact that we didn't have blacks in our schools and that there were
Jews in the classroom who were probably deeply offended by half the
stuff we were saying or doing -- or maybe made to feel inferior.
I say that to make the point that we have not become
less religious over the last 30 years by saying that schools cannot
impose a particular religion, even if it's a Christian religion and
98 percent of the kids in the schools are Christian and Protestant.
I'm not sure the Catholics were always comfortable with what we did
either. We had a big Catholic population in my school and in my
hometown. But I did that -- I have been a part of this debate we are
talking about. This is a part of my personal life experience. So I
have seen a lot of progress made and I agreed with the Supreme
Court's original decision in Engel v. Vitale.
Now, since then, I've not always agreed with every
decision the Supreme Court made in the area of the First Amendment.
I said the other day I didn't think the decision on the prayer at the
commencement, where the Rabbi was asked to give the nonsectarian
prayer at the commencement -- I didn't agree with that because I
didn't think it any coercion at all. And I thought that people were
not interfered with. And I didn't think it amounted to the
establishment of a religious practice by the government. So I have
not always agreed.
But I do believe that on balance, the direction of the
First Amendment has been very good for America and has made us the
most religious country in the world by keeping the government out of
creating religion, supporting particular religions, interfering, and
interfering with other people's religious practices.
What is giving rise to so much of this debate today I
think is two things. One is the feeling that the schools are special
and a lot of kids are in trouble, and a lot of kids are in trouble
for nonacademic reasons, and we want our kids to have good values and
have a good future.
Let me give you just one example. There is today, being
released, a new study of drug use among young people by the group
that Joe Califano was associated with -- Council for a Drug-Free
America -- massive poll of young people themselves. It's a
fascinating study and I urge all of you to get it. Joe came in a
couple of days ago and briefed my on it. It shows disturbingly that
even though serious drug use is down overall in groups in America,
casual drug use is coming back up among some of our young people who
no longer believe that it's dangerous and have forgotten that's it's
wrong and are basically living in a world that I think is very
And I see it all the time. It's coming back up. Even
though we're investing money and trying to combat it in education and
treatment programs, and supporting things like the DARE program. And
we're breaking more drug rings than every before around the world.
It's almost -- it's very disturbing because it's fundamentally
something that is kind of creeping back in.
But the study shows that there are three major causes
for young people not using drugs. One is they believe that their
future depends upon their not doing it; they're optimistic about the
future. The more optimistic kids are about the future, the less
likely they are to use drugs.
Second is having a strong, positive relationship with
their parents. The closer kids are to their parents and the more
tuned in to them they are, and the more their parents are good role
models, the less likely kids are to use drugs.
You know what the third is? How religious the children
are. The more religious the children are, the less likely they are
to use drugs.
So what's the big fight over religion in the schools and
what does it mean to us and why are people so upset about it? I think
there are basically three reasons. One is, people believe that -- most
Americans believe that if you're religious, personally religious, you
ought to be able to manifest that anywhere at any time, in a public or
private place. Second, I think that most Americans are disturbed if
they think that our government is becoming anti-religious, instead of
adhering to the firm spirit of the First Amendment -- don't establish,
don't interfere with, but respect. And the third thing is people worry
about our national character as manifest in the lives of our children.
The crime rate is going down in almost every major area in America
today, but the rate of violent random crime among very young people is
still going up.
So these questions take on a certain urgency today for
personal reasons and for larger social reasons. And this old debate
that Madison and Jefferson started over 200 years ago is still being
spun out today basically as it relates to what can and cannot be done
in our schools, and the whole question, specific question, of school
prayer, although I would argue it goes way beyond that.
So let me tell you what I think the law is and what
we're trying to do about it, since I like the First Amendment, and I
think we're better off because of it, and I think that if you have
two great pillars -- the government can't establish and the
government can't interfere with -- obviously there are going to be a
thousand different factual cases that will arise at any given time,
and the courts from time to time will make decisions that we don't
all agree with, but the question is, are the pillars the right
pillars, and do we more or less come out in the right place over the
The Supreme Court is like everybody else, it's imperfect
-- and so are we. Maybe they're right and we're wrong. But we are
going to have these differences. The fundamental balance that has
been struck it seems to me has been very good for America, but what
is not good today is that people assume that there is a
positive-antireligious bias in the cumulative impact of these court
decisions with which our administration -- the Justice Department and
the Secretary of Education and the President -- strongly disagree.
So let me tell you what I think the law is today and what I have
instructed the Department of Education and the Department of Justice
to do about it.
The First Amendment does not -- I will say again -- does
not convert our schools into religion-free zones. 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. 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.
There are those who do believe our schools should be
value-neutral and that religion has no place inside the schools. But
I think that wrongly interprets the idea of the wall between church
and state. They are not the walls of the school.
There are those who say that values and morals and
religions have no place in public education; I think that is wrong.
First of all, the consequences of having no values are not neutral.
The violence in our streets -- not value neutral. The movies we see
aren't value neutral. Television is not value neutral. Too often we
see expressions of human degradation, immorality, violence and
debasement of the human soul that have more influence and take more
time and occupy more space in the minds of our young people than any
of the influences that are felt at school anyway. Our schools,
therefore, must be a barricade against this kind of degradation. And
we can do it without violating the First Amendment.
I am deeply troubled that so many Americans feel that
their faith is threatened by the mechanisms that are designed to
protect their faith. Over the past decade we have seen a real rise
in these kind of cultural tensions in America. Some people even say
we have a culture war. There have been books written about culture
war, the culture of disbelief, all these sort of trends arguing that
many Americans genuinely feel that a lot of our social problems today
have arisen in large measure because the country led by the
government has made an assault on religious convictions. That is
fueling a lot of this debate today over what can and cannot be done
in the schools.
Much of the tension stems from the idea that religion is
simply not welcome at all in what Professor Carter at Yale has called
the public square. Americans feel that instead of celebrating their
love for God in public, they're being forced to hide their faith
behind closed doors. That's wrong. Americans should never have to
hide their faith. But some Americans have been denied the right to
express their religion and that has to stop. That has happened and
it has to stop. It is crucial that government does not dictate or
demand specific religious views, but equally crucial that government
doesn't prevent the expression of specific religious views.
When the First Amendment is invoked as an obstacle to
private expression of religion it is being misused. Religion has a
proper place in private and a proper place in public because the
public square belongs to all Americans. It's especially important
that parents feel confident that their children can practice religion.
That's why some families have been frustrated to see their children
denied even the most private forms of religious expression in public
schools. It is rare, but these things have actually happened.
I know that most schools do a very good job of protecting
students' religious rights, but some students in America have been
prohibited from reading the Bible silently in study hall. Some student
religious groups haven't been allowed to publicize their meetings in
the same way that nonreligious groups can. Some students have been
prevented even from saying grace before lunch. That is rare, but it
has happened and it is wrong. Wherever and whenever the religious
rights of children are threatened or suppressed, we must move quickly
to correct it. We want to make it easier and more acceptable for
people to express and to celebrate their faith.
Now, just because the First Amendment sometimes gets the
balance a little bit wrong in specific decisions by specific people
doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the First Amendment. I
still believe the First Amendment as it is presently written permits
the American people to do what they need to do. That's what I
believe. (Applause.) Let me give you some examples and you see if
First of all, the First Amendment does not require
students to leave their religion at the schoolhouse door. We wouldn't
want students to leave the values they learn from religion, like
honesty and sharing and kindness, behind the schoolhouse door --
behind at the schoolhouse door, and reinforcing those values is an
important part of every school's mission.
Some school officials and teachers and parents believe
that the Constitution forbids any religious expression at all in
public schools. That is wrong. Our courts have made it clear that
that is wrong. It is also not a good idea. Religion is too important
to our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools.
Once again, it shouldn't be demanded, but as long as it is not
sponsored by school officials and doesn't interfere with other
children's rights, it mustn't be denied.
For example, students can pray privately and
individually whenever they want. They can say grace themselves
before lunch. There are times when they can pray out loud together.
Student religious clubs in high schools can and should be treated
just like any other extracurricular club. They can advertise their
meetings, meet on school grounds, use school facilities just as other
clubs can. When students can choose to read a book to themselves,
they have every right to read the Bible or any other religious text
Teachers can and certainly should teach about religion
and the contributions it has made to our history, our values, our
knowledge, to our music and our art in our country and around the
world, and to the development of the kind of people we are. Students
can also pray to themselves -- preferably before tests, as I used to
Students should feel free to express their religion and
their beliefs in homework, through art work, during class
presentations, as long as it's relevant to the assignment. If
students can distribute flyers or pamphlets that have nothing to do
with the school, they can distribute religious flyers and pamphlets
on the same basis. If students can wear T-shirts advertising sports
teams, rock groups or politicians, they can also wear T-shirts that
promote religion. If certain subjects or activities are
objectionable to their students or their parents because of their
religious beliefs, then schools may, and sometimes they must, excuse
the students from those activities.
Finally, even though the schools can't advocate
religious beliefs, as I said earlier, they should teach mainstream
values and virtues. The fact that some of these values happen to be
religious values does not mean that they cannot be taught in our
All these forms of religious expression and worship are
permitted and protected by the First Amendment. That doesn't change
the fact that some students haven't been allowed to express their
beliefs in these ways. What we have to do is to work together to
help all Americans understand exactly what the First Amendment does.
It protects freedom of religion by allowing students to pray, and it
protects freedom of religion by preventing schools from telling them
how and when and what to pray. The First Amendment keeps us all on
common ground. We are allowed to believe and worship as we choose
without the government telling any of us what we can and cannot do.
It is in that spirit that I am today directing the
Secretary of Education and the Attorney General to provide every
school district in America before school starts this fall with a
detailed explanation of the religious expression permitted in
schools, including all the things that I've talked about today. I
hope parents, students, educators and religious leaders can use this
directive as a starting point. I hope it helps them to understand
their differences, to protect student's religious rights, and to find
common ground. I believe we can find that common ground.
This past April a broad coalition of religious and legal
groups -- Christian and Jewish, conservative and liberal, Supreme
Court advocates and Supreme Court critics -- put themselves on the
solution side of this debate. They produced a remarkable document
called "Religion in Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current
Law." They put aside their deep differences and said, we all agree
on what kind of religious expression the law permits in our schools.
My directive borrows heavily and gratefully from their wise and
thoughtful statement. This is a subject that could have easily
divided the men and women that came together to discuss it. But they
moved beyond their differences and that may be as important as the
specific document they produced.
I also want to mention over 200 religious and civic
leaders who signed the Williamsburg Charter in Virginia in 1988.
That charter reaffirms the core principles of the First Amendment.
We can live together with our deepest differences and all be stronger
The charter signers are impressive in their own right
and all the more impressive for their differences of opinion,
including Presidents Ford and Carter; Chief Justice Rehnquist and the
late Chief Justice Burger; Senator Dole and former Governor Dukakis;
Bill Bennett and Lane Kirkland, the president of the AFL-CIO; Norman
Lear and Phyllis Schlafly signed it together -- (laughter) -- Coretta
Scott King and Reverend James Dobson.
These people were able to stand up publicly because
religion is a personal and private thing for Americans which has to
have some public expression. That's how it is for me. I'm pretty
old-fashioned about these things. I really do believe in the constancy
of sin and the constant possibility of forgiveness, the reality of
redemption and the promise of a future life. But I'm also a Baptist
who believe that salvation is primarily personal and private, that my
relationship is directly with God and not through any intermediary.
People -- other people can have different views. And
I've spent a good part of my life trying to understand different
religious views, celebrate them and figure out what brings us
I will say again, the First Amendment is a gift to us.
And the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in broad ways so that
it could grow and change, but hold fast to certain principles. They
knew -- they knew that all people were fallible and would make
mistakes from time to time. And I have -- as I said, there are times
when the Supreme Court makes a decision, if I disagree with it, one
of us is wrong. There's another possibility: both of us could be
wrong. (Laughter.) That's the way it is in human affairs.
But what I want to say to the American people and what I
want to say to you is that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson did not
intend to drive a stake in the heart of religion and to drive it out
of our public life. What they intended to do was to set up a system
so that we could bring religion into our public life and into our
private life without any of us telling the other what to do.
This is a big deal today. One county in America, Los
Angeles County, has over 150 different racial and ethnic groups in it
-- over 150 different. How many religious views do you suppose are
in those groups? How many? Every significant religion in the world
is represented in significant numbers in one American county, and
many smaller religious groups -- in one American county.
We have got to get this right. We have got to get this
right. And we have to keep this balance. This country needs to be a
place where religion grows and flourishes.
Don't you believe that if every kid in every difficult
neighborhood in America were in a religious institution on the
weekends, the synagogue on Saturday, a church on Sunday, a mosque on
Friday, don't you really believe that the drug rate, the crime rate,
the violence rate, the sense of self-destruction would go way down and
the quality of the character of this country would go way up?
But don't you also believe that if for the last 200 years
we had had a state governed religion, people would be bored with it,
think that it would -- (laughter and applause) -- they would think it
had been compromised by politicians, shaved around the edges, imposed
on people who didn't really content to it, and we wouldn't have
250,000 houses of worship in America? (Applause.) I mean, we
It may be perfect -- imperfect, the First Amendment, but
it is the nearest thing ever created in any human society for the
promotion of religion and religious values because it left us free to
do it. And I strongly believe that the government has made a lot of
mistakes which we have tried to roll back in interfering with that
around the edges. That's what the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
is all about. That's what this directive that Secretary Riley and
the Justice Department and I have worked so hard on is all about.
That's what our efforts to bring in people of different religious
views are all about. And I strongly believe that we have erred when
we have rolled it back too much. And I hope that we can have a
partnership with our churches in many ways to reach out to the young
people who need the values, the hope, the belief, the convictions
that comes with faith, and the sense of security in a very uncertain
and rapidly changing world.
But keep in mind we have a chance to do it because of
the heritage of America and the protection of the First Amendment.
We have to get it right.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
END 11:37 A.M. EDT
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