Clinton keeps church-state wall

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Like a good rabbi, cop or world leader, President Clinton is laying down the law — about school prayer:

Public schools are not religion-free zones, nor may they sanction religious coercion.

Clinton is using nothing less than the Constitution to toe that delicate line. He should win political points and the support of American Jews interested in protecting the boundary between church and state.

The cornerstone of American democracy "protected the free exercise of religion but prohibited the establishment of religion," Clinton says.

The president has long advocated voluntary prayer in the nation's schools as a way to maintain an element of spirituality in society. Some say that tack smacks of pandering to the middle.

But now the president is drawing a line in the sand as Christian Right groups lobby the Republican Congress to enact a so-called "religious equality" amendment for supposedly voluntary, nonsectarian public school prayer.

Clinton is sending public schools nationwide guidelines for religious expression that spell out specifically what the Constitution and subsequent amendments and high court decisions permit.

By reinforcing the Constitution's duality — allowing schools to teach about religion but not provide religious instruction — Clinton is wielding the document to fortify, not smash, the church-state wall.

"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," Clinton has said.

Similarly, "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."

Clinton's guidelines seek to protect religious protections. They came after he consulted with the American Jewish Congress, which led a task force of civil liberties groups battling attempts to weaken the church-state divider.

Supporters of religious freedom and school prayer choice who are concerned about the president's motivations should note where he is getting advice — and then support his leadership-by-example.