The right of the nation's children to religious expression is well protected, President Clinton said Saturday, and amending the Constitution to permit prayer in public schools would be wrong.
Clinton reissued federal guidelines outlining a wide array of religious activity in which students are already permitted to engage. He used his weekly radio address to argue that authorizing voluntary school prayer by constitutional amendment would be counterproductive."Helping communities to find common ground about religious expression is the right way," Clinton said. "There's also a wrong way: amending the Constitution."
"Some people say there should be a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in our public schools," he said. "But there already is one - it's the First Amendment,' which guarantees both free speech and the separation of church and state.
So long as people fully understand their religious rights and they are sensibly applied in public schools, the Constitution "does not need to be rewritten," Clinton asserted.
Without mentioning it directly, Clinton took aim at the "Religious Freedom Amendment," a measure sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla. It would amend the Constitution to make it easier for students to voluntarily participate in group prayer. The House is expected to vote on the measure soon, most likely on Thursday.
"You can't make things constitutional again just by issuing some guidelines - you have to amend the Constitution so the Supreme Court won't misinterpret it anymore," Istook said.
In order to pass, the amendment must be approved by two-thirds of House members present. For the Constitution to be changed, the Senate also would have to approve the amendment by a two-thirds vote, and 34 states would have to ratify it.
Supporters, which include the conservative Christian Coalition, contend the proposed amendment is needed to reverse years of court rulings they say have made it too difficult for schoolchildren to participate in voluntary, student-led prayer at school.
But Clinton said school-children already have many religious rights, including the right to pray privately and individually while in school, the right to say grace at lunchtime, the right to organize religious groups and meet on school grounds, the right to read the Bible or religious texts during free time and the right to be free of efforts to coerce their participation in religious activity.
"Nothing in the Constitution requires schools to be religious-free zones, where children must leave their faiths at the schoolhouse door," Clinton said.