Clintons move on prayer could backfire

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Clinton's move to head off the drive for school prayer could backfire as religious right activists vow to use the initiative to push for more religion in America's classrooms.

The guidelines are a "road map" for bringing religion into the schools, said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a church lobbying organization based in Anaheim, Calif., and a chief architect of the highly controversial "religious equality amendment."

"The president helped us because he raised the level of the issue," said Sheldon, a born Jew who converted decades ago at the age of 15 after "seeing the light" at an evangelists meeting in his native Washington, D.C.

It was largely in an effort to stave off Sheldon and other religious rights activists — and especially their congressional backers — that Clinton last week issued a set of guidelines defining the vast array of religious activity legally permitted in public schools.

Jewish groups mostly applauded the president's message, but some said they are looking for some fine-tuning to avoid a backlash against Jewish and minority students.

The initiative, which the president said "borrows heavily" from a recently released study on the subject by a coalition spearheaded by the American Jewish Congress, spells out what forms of religious expression are currently allowed in the schools.

Noting that nothing in the First Amendment "converts our public schools into religion-free zones," the guidelines address such issues as student prayer and religious discussion, teaching about religion and the wearing of religious garb.

The administration hopes that once Americans realize the extent of the protections under current law, politicians will abandon their efforts to amend the Constitution.

Clinton, who unveiled his guidelines in a speech at a Virginia high school last week, vowed to send the guidelines to all of America's 15,000 school districts before the coming school year begins.

"The Constitution protected the free exercise of religion, but prohibited the establishment of religion," Clinton said in his speech.

"It does not, as some people have implied, make us a religion-free country," he said.

While many Jewish activists — concerned most with averting the enactment of a constitutional amendment — praised Clinton for his initiative, some suggested that changes are necessary to help clarify what is prohibited in the schools.

"It's a fair criticism of the presidential memo that it did not state unequivocally what is prohibited," said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of AJCongress and the primary author of the guidelines on which Clinton's directives were based.

"It would have been nice had the president emphasized more of the prohibitions," he said.

Stern acknowledged the possibility that the effort could galvanize the right, but, he said, "We can't resist acknowledging what law is because someone might distort it."

"This may be the lesser of two evils, but I don't see the Jewish community in the position of arguing against religious freedom protected in current law," he said.

Stern said AJCongress would try to convince the Department of Education, the White House and the attorney general to add language on forbidden religious expression "so what is sent out is clear."

Among the Orthodox community, Agudath Israel of America said it "commended the thrust" of Clinton's remarks, but expressed concern that the emphasis on legally protected religious speech "could create problems for children of minority faiths, including Jewish children, in public schools."

Despite some concerns, several Jewish groups said they believe that the guidelines will be an important tool for educators trying out to navigate the complex nature of religion in school.

The guidelines "give some clarity to schools and communities about what is and is not allowed," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center.

"Yes, this will lead to more religion, but, no, I don't believe it will be coercive."

Clinton's move "really undermines the argument for a constitutional amendment," Saperstein added, giving voice to the biggest fear among Jewish and other religious groups.

How the Clinton initiative will affect the debate over a constitutional amendment on Capitol Hill is still an unknown.

Congress wrapped up a series of field hearings on the "religious equality amendment" this week as religious right activists and members of Congress feverishly worked to complete language on an amendment before lawmakers recess for August.

Although the actual text of an amendment has yet to be introduced into Congress, Sheldon has drafted a broad amendment that, among other things, would allow students to lead their classmates in prayer during the school day.

The Christian Coalition, the organization of the Christian right, has also made passage of a constitutional amendment the centerpiece of its legislative agenda.