Bill Clinton photo

Press Briefing by Secretary of Education Richard Riley and Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger

July 12, 1995

The Briefing Room

1:30 P.M. EDT

SECRETARY RILEY: Thank you. The President's speech today is, as you know, the third speech in the last seven days in which he has articulated and defined his views on finding new common ground for the American people. At Georgetown last week, his speech on civic responsibility, and just a few days ago in Nashville at the Vice President's conference on the family and the media, the President got to the heart of the concerns that are troubling so many Americans over the breakdown of values and related issues.

The last two years I have visited with many educators, parents, religious leaders, and I've become increasingly aware of the real need to find a new common ground when it comes to the place of religious expression and religious freedom in our schools. Public schools should not be hostile to religion. They must protect the established rights of students -- and there are many, as you can see from the directive that the President has just issued.

Confusion about what the courts will and will not allow should not lead teachers or principals to violate the many established religious rights of students. But we really do need to do a better job, I think, of giving school officials the kind of information that they do need to protect those rights. And I believe that this directive will go a long way to reducing the confusion and ending the unnecessary litigation. And I think that's very good.

In his speech, the President is saying quite clearly that too many people have interpreted the Supreme Court decisions as precluding religious expression. He strongly disagrees and believes that the decisions do, in fact, allow great latitude for religious expression in a very significant way.

The President feels that those who believe that religious expression, religious freedom are precluded by the decisions of the Court and the Constitution are wrong. Equally, the President rejects those who want organized prayer in our public schools also. Public schools and, for that matter, any other level of government should not interfere or intrude on a family's religious beliefs, and goes against our grain to coerce people on something so important as their religious beliefs. Public education should be respectful of religion, open to appropriate religious expression and teach about religion because it is so very much a part of our nation's history.

But teachers and principals should not be in the position of advocating religion. Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are at the very heart of American democracy. And that's why we should be very cautious about tampering with the Bill of Rights. The President has always been opposed to altering the First Amendment. It has never been altered in the entire history of this nation and it should not be altered now.

Today, however, we want to stress where we can find a new common ground. And I think this is the right way to go to resolve many of the conflicts that are out there, and get on with the important work of education.

Now, let me introduce Walter Dellinger, who's representing the Attorney General. Walter is Assistant Attorney General, and legal counsel to the Attorney General.



The President took a step today that other presidents should have taken a long time ago. And that step was to instruct his Secretary of Education to be very aggressive about letting the school districts of this country know that it is not, in fact, the case that the Constitution has expelled religion from the public schools of America.

I can recall more than a dozen years ago, in 1983, when the Congress was considering these issues before; and how many of us testified at that time that much of what was driving this problem and causing so much divisiveness and confusion and conflict was a widespread sense, created by a number of public figures who would repeatedly tell the American people that God and religion were precluded from our public schools.

Unfortunately, some school officials, some principals were confused by that and believed what they heard; and would rule that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes could not meet on school property, even though a wide array of other clubs were meeting. They would say that all their students were free to bring virtually any book of their choice to school; they couldn't bring the Bible. And if you're doing a book report, you couldn't report on a book that was about religion even if you had a broad range of topics otherwise to choose from. So that there was this very unfortunate dynamic in which the misunderstanding about what the religious rights of Americans truly are, including those Americans who are our children, fed a drive to violate one of our other basic principles. And that principle was enunciated by Justice Black over three decades ago when he said that it is no part of the business of government to compose prayers for any group of the American people. That's a bedrock principle.

But as Justice O'Connor wrote in 1990 for the Court, there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion which the establishment cause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion which the First Amendment protects. It should have been clear for a long time that student religious groups are entitled to hold meetings at their schools, just as other extracurricular groups are allowed to meet; that they can come together to discuss their religious beliefs with each other, to pray, to read religious scriptures, and that they have the same right as other groups to publicize their meetings through the school's bulletin board and its newspapers and over its PA system.

It should have been clear for a long time that the Constitution does not require the subject of religion to be excluded from the classrooms. In the plainest terms a school need not attempt to teach about the abolitionist movement in America, while avoiding any mention of its wellspring in religion. And there's no reason for a school to exclude from a lesson about the civil rights movement any sense of how it drew so much of its strength from the African American church in the southern communities of this nation.

Needless to say, the application of these principles will sometimes require the making of careful judgment and the drawing of narrow lines. But the President has directed the Secretary to make sure that every school district understands those rights of religion that are available and that this be made clear to them while the President is maintaining his commitment to the bedrock principle that forbids government itself from interfering with or promoting religion.

And we'll be happy to take your questions.

Q: Does this mean you can have prayer in the classroom, you can have an organized prayer in the classroom, you have a moment of silence, or does it mean that the teacher has all of these problems that she will face in terms of religious response?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I might say, first of all, that all of these issues are out there now. We didn't create any issues --

Q: Nobody said you did.

SECRETARY RILEY: No, but I say that -- those problems that you mentioned, they are problems now. We've tried to clarify as best possible those areas which can be clarified based upon court decisions and the interpretation of the Supreme Court.

Now, a lot of things haven't been clarified yet, and those generally are not dealt with. So you cannot have, under the Court decisions -- and maybe Professor Dellinger should speak to that -- but you can't have, obviously, a school-sponsored prayer in the school or whatever. However, this idea of private prayer in the school is an entirely different matter.

Q: But that doesn't -- that begs the question that Helen just asked. And that is, somebody can sit and choose to drop out of class and not pay attention and pray. But that's different than the teacher saying, okay, we're going to set aside a period of time, a moment of silence -- for want of a better word -- which has, in a lot of school districts, not been allowed to happen because it's been considered prayer in school. What's your -- what is the administration's position on a moment of silence?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: Well, I can say -- to answer Ms. Thomas' question first -- that you cannot have religious activities that are organized by any government official, and that includes teachers and principals as well as school superintendents. They're not to do that.

And I think, in response to Ms. Braver's question, that a majority of the Supreme Court has clearly indicated that a neutral moment of silence, one in which the individual and not the government makes the decision about whether and how to pray, is constitutional.

Q: So it's okay in the classroom, right?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: A true neutral moment of silence the Court will sustain.

Q: A lot of the provisions in the President's letter, though, go right around the edges of some Court decisions. Some of them are new ground; some of them require interpretations by the Justice Department. Do you expect challenges on those?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: I hope and expect that when this is communicated by the Department of Education, it will greatly reduce the amount of conflict and controversy. Because there are some very clearly established rights. You cannot discriminate against the bringing of a book because it's the Bible. You can't discriminate against a topic merely because it's a religious topic. You can't discriminate against a club because it wants to engage in religious activity. And, for example, students who are free in the informal settings to discuss politics with each other are also free to discuss religion. And by getting that message out against this large counter-sense in the culture that religion has been excluded, we hope that it will resolve a lot of controversies -- which is not to say that there is anything that any of us could do to remove all of the controversies.

I mean, one of the areas that you will inevitably have will arise when you try to draw that fine line between whether the prayer is a product of government or produce of wholly private belief. And sometimes what makes cases difficult is trying to decide when the connection between the government and the prayers become so attenuated that it is no longer a government decision to have prayer.

Q: What if in your truly neutral moment of silence a student wished to unroll a prayer rug and kneel toward Mecca or engage in some even more demonstrative prayer -- would that be permitted in the President's thinking?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: That is a detail about that issue which we simply haven't addressed.

Q: I just want to ask you, do you consider that this directive from the President breaks any new interpretive ground or is simply a statement as best you can do at the Justice Department of existing law? And, Secretary Riley, will your memo or whatever it will be to school districts essentially just be this directive from the President to you, or is it a document yet to be prepared that will have further guidance interpretations in it?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I think the answer to your first question is it's basically an interpretation of current law, however you put it in words, we think that are clear and are helpful.

Now, in terms of how we will then distribute, we have instructions from the President, of course, to get to every school district by the first of the year in time to have this kind of information. Obviously, the directive itself will be sent to them because it is carefully thought out and the Justice Department and our people have worked on it together.

What we will do in addition to that I really cannot say at this time. Whether we would try to give some clarifying examples and other helpful information, I really cannot say at this time, but we will certainly investigate all that. What we want to be is helpful. We're not trying to make a point, but to be helpful as to what religious expression is protected and so people can have that to rely on.

Q: Just to follow up, Mr. Dellinger, do you think there are any elements of these points the President cites that push the interpretive envelope at all or would be, as Mr. Williams suggested, the subject of any material controversy?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: You know, it is impossible to act in this area without controversy. And it is impossible to develop a set of guidelines for the schools without having to engage in very, very serious discussion and debate. We had a lot of people talk about how we thought these basic principles ought to be applied. And we tried to give as much guidance as possible and to demonstrate really how much room there is for private religious activities just as we emphasize the other principle.

These are two principles that really are not very hard to keep in mind -- that government has no business organizing or mandating or directing or endorsing prayers and religious activities; and that private citizens, including those who are our students, do have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of the religious content of their speech. And all of their robust activities may include their religious activities.

Those are the two great principles, both of which the President strongly endorsed in his speech today. And what we've tried to do is to see from looking at these two principles how we can make specific directives, give people answers to some of their simple questions: Can a student keep a Bible on a desk. Well, the answer is, can they generally keep books they want on the desk. If the answer to that question is yes, then that's the student's choice.

Q: Specifically on the timing of this, how is this geared specifically to preempting attempts on Capitol Hill to have a constitutional amendment on school prayer?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: Well, I think in terms of the timing, it certainly seems both to Secretary Riley, who has been working on this issue for some time, and to others of us, that before the country embarks on what has the potential to be a divisive debate on religion in the schools, that it's important to reduce the amount of confusion and misunderstanding that currently surrounds the subject. So, in that sense, it is a good time, if we're going to be entering a period of debate about this subject, that we let people know really how well -- if properly interpreted, how well our existing constitutional principles are working.

Q: If we're starting to enter down into that debate, why didn't the President today specifically mention what several Republicans want to do in terms of amending the Constitution?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: As far as I know, there's no official draft or a text of a constitutional amendment. The President's made it clear before that he is not in favor of amending the Bill of Rights.

Q: Except for the time when he said he might be --

Q: Wait. The White House has made it clear. The President actually hasn't, has he?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: I thought the President spoke very powerfully today that the First Amendment has served it well and can't be improved upon. That is not consistent with any desire to edit the Bill of Rights. And he has made it perfectly clear that he is opposed to any editing of the Bill of Rights, any amendment. We've been through this with other amendments, and the President has taken the position that he is not going to support or improve any effort to amend any part of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment.

Q: Will there be guidelines issued on what a truly neutral moment of silence is? And is the administration advocating a moment of silence in America's public schools?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: This is not something that I believe is being advocated, but I'll let the Secretary --

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I don't know how much of a guideline you have to describe neutral, but it's a pretty good word in itself. It's my thinking that we are not recommending that, but it has been constitutionally determined to be valid and protected if it is, in fact, a neutral moment of silence.

Q: Secretary Riley, does the President think that a teacher should be able to call a moment of silence in a classroom?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I'll tell you what I think -- that the teacher is protected constitutionally to have a neutral moment of silence. Now, if a teacher calls for a moment of silence and clouds that with the language leading into the moment of silence, it becomes not neutral.

Q: Are you going to give recommendations to them on language that wouldn't get them in trouble?

SECRETARY RILEY: I'll have to take a look at that. I do not expect to do that. That's a constitutionally determined factor, but it's not one that we've dealt with here.

Q: How many school districts are there? And the President mentioned some of the same examples you did, and said these were rare cases -- not being able to say grace or not having a Bible on the desk. Just how widespread do you think the interest is, nationwide in the school districts to have instructions like this?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I know for a fact that there's an awful lot of confusion out there. And I see it and hear it. And we've had a number of meetings all across the country with religious leaders, with teachers, principals, students, parents, and it is very clear to me that this kind of approach will be helpful. It is treading on -- certainly borders on controversy every time you mention religion in the public space. But it needs to be dealt with. And I'm very pleased the President has.

Let me mention a couple of situations, just to give you an example of the kind of thing. The Baptist Press reported in December of '89 a Georgia high school principal refused to allow students to bring Bibles, religious paraphernalia to school, and threatened to suspend one student. In Montgomery County, Maryland, a kindergarten student was told she could not sing a verse of a religious song to her classmates, even though the teacher was allowing each of the children to share his or her favorite song with the group. And finally, a Southern California student was arrested for praying around the flagpole before school. Now, that's just some clear, simple examples of the kind of thing.

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: Let me add just a word to that, that while I do not know what a survey would show in terms of how frequent has been the practice of depriving kids in school of their individual religious rights, you do see in the reported cases the fair persistence of the idea that religion has to be excluded.

You will start with the case -- the Lubbock case in Texas -- where they say, no Fellowship of Christian Athletes can meet because the principal believes that he has learned that it would be wrong to have the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meet, even though there's every variety of other kinds of student groups meeting.

And then you will have cases, even after you establish the equal access principle, that say, well, we do have an act that would allow student groups to actually meet, but they certainly wouldn't be allowed to pray. Well, that's clearly contrary to the intent. And a group that can meet has the same right to engage in prayer activity.

And then you'll have principals who will say, because they think there is this overwhelming exclusion of private religious speech, well, they certainly couldn't allow them to announce their meetings on the PA system, the way other groups announce. And all of these have resulted in reported cases that have gone to litigation. I don't see them until they have gone to the United States Court of Appeals. So that's a lot of time and money and expense.

Q: Hasn't there always been a wall, though -- I mean, going back even to the founding fathers, between church and the state? And who's really prevented anyone from praying in schools throughout a lifetime?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: Well, there have been, Ms. Thomas, real and actual cases, and quite numerous, and certainly before the Equal Access Act in 1984, of not allowing a student religious group to meet on the same terms as other groups. So you could obviously pray privately and silently as if it were some secret and disfavored activity. But you couldn't meet and pray, even though the Young Democrats and the Young Republicans and heaven knows what else were meeting in the other rooms.

Q: Since the cases you're citing you portray as misinterpretations, apparently, of what laws are already on the books, and because today's presidential directive carries no weight of law, what effect does this really have? Because any individual school district, any individual, would still have the right to challenge the current activities.

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL DELLINGER: I may have inadvertently misled you. These cases have eventually come out the right way, sometimes with the passage of legislation. It's the school officials who have sometimes gotten the answer wrong. Because they've heard so much and so powerfully the statement that religion must constitutionally be excluded from the schools that they get some of these questions wrong.

Q: To what extent do you think the President's speech today has dealt with any sort of political attack on the issue from, say, the religious right or from the Republican Party?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well -- and I have no way of judging the impact on anything at this moment. I would say this: that I think the President has the responsibility to try to lead this nation in a way that we can resolve conflicts in a better way. And that's what this series of talks and conversations that he's had with the American people -- to seek new common ground. And if there's any area in the country where this common ground is needed it's in this area of religious expression in the public schools.

How that impacts what's going to happen in Congress, or how -- the politics of that, that is not my concern at all. I am concerned from a school standpoint. And in my judgment, it will be a tremendous help and it's fresh air into a very confusing situation in the public schools.

Q: How is a third-grade teacher in Youngstown, Ohio going to hear about what he or she can or cannot do now under these guidelines?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, of course, we would contact by order the school district, maybe going further than that, but certainly the school district. The question was asked about how many, and I think there are approximately 15,000 school districts. But we would notify every school district. It would be the district's, I would think, very happy responsibility then to see that all their principals, first of all, were informed; and the principals, of course, their teachers and parents. So I think the network would be very clear as far as getting the word out, and I believe it would be received in a very positive way. People would be relieved in many, many cases.

Q: You have clearly focused on the people in school districts who have been cut off from religion. But how would this directive be used to stop school districts from -- which currently have prayer in the classrooms and go on the other side of the issue, allowing too much religion in the classes?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, as was said by the President and both of us, it is a two-sided coin. And certainly, if it's being stretched on the other side, that also -- there should be clarifying information in that regard also. So it's a two-sided situation. The establishment cause and the religious freedom cause must be taken, as the President said, as two pillars there for you to deal with both of them. So it's a good question because that's very true. If it's being violated on the other side, hopefully, this kind of directive would be helpful.

Thank you.

END 1:56 P.M. EDT

William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Secretary of Education Richard Riley and Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under


Simple Search of Our Archives