New federal guide on religion in public schools wins backing

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Education has issued guidelines detailing the types of religious activity permitted and prohibited in public schools.

The guidelines, sent recently to more than 15,000 public school superintendents nationwide, supersede a version announced by President Clinton this summer that was sharply criticized for failing to delineate illegal religious activities.

By issuing the guidelines, Secretary of Education Richard Riley has silenced critics in the Jewish community who charged that the original parameters amounted to an open door for illegal religious expression.

A cover letter from Riley accompanying the guidelines is "fully responsive to our concerns," said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of American Jewish Congress and the primary author of the guidelines on which Clinton's directives were based.

Schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine or coerce participation in religious activity, Riley wrote. The right of religious expression in school does not include the right to have a "captive audience" or to compel students to participate.

"School officials should not permit student religious speech to turn into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students," Riley wrote.

There is no right "to make repeated invitations to other students to participate in religious activity in the face of a request to stop," he added.

In order to ensure that his letter and the original guidelines receive equal weight, Riley began the guidelines on the same page as the cover letter.

"People will have to file them together. It was a very clever move," Stern said.

According to the guidelines, students may pray during the school day, wear religious attire, express religious beliefs in assignments and make religious or anti-religious remarks in a classroom discussion as long as they are relevant to the topic at hand. They may also meet in religious clubs as long as the school permits noncurricular activities during nonschool hours, and distribute literature under the same rules that apply to nonreligious handouts.

School officials may not enact or administer rules to discriminate against religious activity or speech and cannot encourage or discourage student participation in religious activities, the guidelines say.

"Religious freedom does not mean that one person can coerce another or that the state or the teacher can coerce or preach a particular religion," Riley said in a roundtable meeting with reporters.

"We hope this will end some of the confusion and will be a catalyst for people to come together to talk about what is and is not permitted."

In meetings with the administration, AJCongress and the Anti-Defamation League expressed concerns that the Clinton guidelines were "one-sided" because they told school officials what type of religious activity they must allow.

Prohibited activity was in the original guidelines "but was not in neon lights. There are some who wanted that and the Riley statement gives them that," Stern said.

Intended to head off religious right activists pushing for a religious equality amendment, the guidelines have slowed if not stopped the push for a constitutional amendment in Congress.

"A lot of the political engine has been removed" for school-prayer advocates, Stern said. "Whether that thwarts a school-prayer amendment is too early to be seen. I'm not prepared to write them off yet."

For the moment, efforts to introduce a religious equality amendment in Congress have stalled as religious right activists squabble over proposed language.