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Clinton on Religion in the Schools:
What Does It All Mean?

by Molleen Matsumura


This article was originally run under the title "Clinton, Church, State, and Everything" in the Secular Humanist Bulletin, volume 12, number 1.


In the last issue of SHB, Tom Flynn and Edward Tabash commented on President Clinton's July 12, 1995 speech about religion and the public schools. But Clinton's speech is only part of the story of the current threat to civil liberties, and for a real understanding of what it meant and what to do about it, some background is needed.

It is true that, in principle, "our current constitutional system already protects freedom of and from religion." Still, Clinton had to make that speech because the principles aren't always followed in practice, and the principles themselves are in danger. The First Amendment, and many court rulings based on it, are like a structure of strong beams supporting a floor. That floor is the minimum level of protection that we find in daily life - and it has some knot-holes and rotten boards. We've all heard the stories of Lisa Herdahl and Rachel Bauchman, who were persecuted for objecting to religious activites in their schools. Situations like these are signs that in practice, First Amendment protections need to be strengthened. What about Tom Flynn's claim that Clinton's speech was "the sharpest single blow against secularism ... in the last thirty years"? This is hyperbole; truly vicious blows have been struck. We have a Supreme Court Justice who was calling the wall of separ ation between church and state a "bad metaphor" before Clinton was even elected. We have the Christian Coalition and their "Contract With The American Family". The school prayer amendment Reagan kept shouting about has been put into words. And the Supreme Court's nakedly majoritarian Smith decision is anything but a cog in a secularizing "juggernaut".

Clinton's speech represented a stand against these trends. Better yet, it was politically realistic. Months before, a broad coalition of organizations had released "Religion In Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law." This statement is the work of Sikhs and Scientologists, the National Association of Evangelicals and the ACLU, among others, and it's no surprise that it's a compromise document, with something to make everyone squirm. For example, a professional civil libertarian told me in confidence, "I'm not sure we should support it - the word 'neutrality' is nowhere in there." But, tellingly, an earlier draft was called "What We All Agree On," and when such diverse groups do manage to agree on something, the effect is powerful. I know someone who showed the Joint Statement to the school principal and superintendent in her conservative community - and they paid attention. Whatever the shortcomings of the "Joint Statement," when Clinton made his speech, he knew just what base of political reality he was standing on.

One month later, in August, Education Secretary Riley released a "statement of principles" on religious expression in the schools. The statement wasn't just another press release, but definitive "guidance" mailed to every school superintendent in the country. A less comprehensive, stronger document than the Joint Statement, it says forthrightly, "... [S]chools must be neutral with respect to religion ..." Yes, it says, "Student religious groups at public secondary schools have the same right of access to school facilities as is enjoyed by other comparable student groups." It has to. Congress passed the Equal Access Act. But it also says, "School officials should not permit student religious speech to turn into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students. Students do not have the right to make repeated invitations to other students to participate in religious activity in the face of a request to stop." Sounds good to me.

Now that the neutrality of the schools has been re-asserted, secular humanists must assure that all children, humanist and religious alike, stand on a solid floor of minimum protections. That means fighting the school prayer amendment for all we're worth. And it means making sure parents and citizens in every community understand the relevant laws. Don't let Riley's statement of principles gather dust in your school superintendent's file cabinet. Call 1 (800) USA-LEARN (yes, dial the extra digit), choose menu item "3", get the instructions for receiving a fax of Riley's statement, or finding it on the Internet, and follow them; then make copies and pass them around!

Of course we have goals beyond the minimum. What more do we want? Well, we don't want more censorship. Removing the history of religions and their role in world cultures is a job for Orwell's "Ministry of Truth." Let Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Jewish children study the history of all the above and Taoism too. It's their best chance to learn, quite simply, that there are more religions in the world than the one they learn at home. We don't want more fear and hostility. We do want children to learn that difference isn't frightening or wrong, and we won't do it by suppressing difference. With the right guidance from adults, schools can be a place where a kid wearing a turban, a kid wearing a crucifix, and a kid wearing a Darwin-fish t-shirt meet in the hallway and ... decide to play basketball during lunch break. This is not a vision of a "naked public square." Humanists should not accept a phrase that originally meant that where there are no religious symbols, there is no moral discussion. "Public squares" and public schools are places filled with people. What we want our children to learn in and about these places is that people are free to be themselves, and that they can accept each other just as freely.


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