That's right. Bill Clinton had the US Secretary of Education send a letter out to all the schools, telling them that they had to let you start a Bible Club in your school (as long as they allow non-curriculum clubs; for more info, click here).
Here's a quote from Bill Clinton:
"...Schools do more than train children's minds. They also help to nurture their souls by reinforcing the values they learn at home and in their communities. I believe that one of the best ways we can help out schools to do this is by supporting students' rights to voluntarily practice their religious beliefs, including prayer in schools.... For more than 200 years, the First Amendment has protected our religious freedom and allowed many faiths to flourish in our homes, in our work place and in our schools. Clearly understood and sensibly applied, it works."
May 30, 1998
And here is the full letter from the Secretary of the State:
Dear American Educator,
Almost three years ago, President Clinton directed me, as U.S. Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Attorney General, to provide every public school district in America with a statement of principles addressing the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted in our public schools. In accordance with the President's directive, I sent every school superintendent in the country guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools in August of 1995.
The purpose of promulgating these presidential guidelines was to end much of the confusion regarding religious expression in our nation's public schools that had developed over more than thirty years since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1962 regarding state sponsored school prayer. I believe that these guidelines have helped school officials, teachers, students and parents find a new common ground on the important issue of religious freedom consistent with constitutional requirements.
In July of 1996, for example, the Saint Louis School Board adopted a district wide policy using these guidelines. While the school district had previously allowed certain religious activities, it had never spelled them out before, resulting in a lawsuit over the right of a student to pray before lunch in the cafeteria. The creation of a clearly defined policy using the guidelines allowed the school board and the family of the student to arrive at a mutually satisfactory settlement.
In a case decided last year in a United States District Court in Alabama, (Chandler v. James) involving student initiated prayer at school related events, the court instructed the DeKalb County School District to maintain for circulation in the library of each school a copy of the presidential guidelines.
The great advantage of the presidential guidelines, however, is that they allow school districts to avoid contentious disputes by developing a common understanding among students, teachers, parents and the broader community that the First Amendment does in fact provide ample room for religious expression by students while at the same time maintaining freedom from government sponsored religion.
The development and use of these presidential guidelines were not and are not isolated activities. Rather, these guidelines are part of an ongoing and growing effort by educators and America's religious community to find a new common ground. In April of 1995, for example, thirty-five religious groups issued "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law" that the Department drew from in developing its own guidelines. Following the release of the presidential guidelines, the National PTA and the Freedom Forum jointly published in 1996 "A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools" which put the guidelines into an easily understandable question and answer format.
In the last two years, I have held three religious-education summits to inform faith communities and educators about the guidelines and to encourage continued dialogue and cooperation within constitutional limits. Many religious communities have contacted local schools and school systems to offer their assistance because of the clarity provided by the guidelines. The United Methodist Church has provided reading tutors to many schools, and Hadassah and the Women's League for Conservative Judaism have both been extremely active in providing local schools with support for summer reading programs.
The guidelines we are releasing today are the same as originally issued in 1995, except that changes have been made in the sections on religious excusals and student garb to reflect the Supreme Court decision in Boerne v. Flores declaring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional as applied to actions of state and local governments.
These guidelines continue to reflect two basic and equally important obligations imposed on public school officials by the First Amendment. First, schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious nature. Schools may not discriminate against private religious expression by students, but must instead give students the same right to engage in religious activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity. Generally, this means that students may pray in a nondisruptive manner during the school day when they are not engaged in school activities and instruction, subject to the same rules of order that apply to other student speech.
At the same time, schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine, nor may they coerce participation in religious activity. Among other things, of course, school administrators and teachers may not organize or encourage prayer exercises in the classroom. Teachers, coaches and other school officials who act as advisors to student groups must remain mindful that they cannot engage in or lead the religious activities of students.
And the right of religious expression in school does not include the right to have a "captive audience" listen, or to compel other 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. 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.
The statement of principles set forth below derives from the First Amendment. Implementation of these principles, of course, will depend on specific factual contexts and will require careful consideration in particular cases.
In issuing these revised guidelines I encourage every school district to make sure that principals, teachers, students and parents are familiar with their content. To that end I offer three suggestions:
First, school districts should use these guidelines to revise or develop their own district wide policy regarding religious expression. In developing such a policy, school officials can engage parents, teachers, the various faith communities and the broader community in a positive dialogue to define a common ground that gives all parties the assurance that when questions do arise regarding religious expression the community is well prepared to apply these guidelines to specific cases. The Davis County School District in Farmington, Utah,is an example of a school district that has taken the affirmative step of developing such a policy.
At a time of increasing religious diversity in our country such a proactive step can help school districts create a framework of civility that reaffirms and strengthens the community consensus regarding religious liberty. School districts that do not make the effort to develop their own policy may find themselves unprepared for the intensity of the debate that can engage a community when positions harden around a live controversy involving religious expression in public schools.
Second, I encourage principals and administrators to take the additional step of making sure that teachers, so often on the front line of any dispute regarding religious expression, are fully informed about the guidelines. The Gwinnett County School system in Georgia, for example, begins every school year with workshops for teachers that include the distribution of these presidential guidelines. Our nation's schools of education can also do their part by ensuring that prospective teachers are knowledgeable about religious expression in the classroom.
Third, I encourage schools to actively take steps to inform parents and students about religious expression in school using these guidelines. The Carter County School District in Elizabethton, Tennessee, included the subject of religious expression in a character education program that it developed in the fall of 1997. This effort included sending home to every parent a copy of the "Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools."
Help is available for those school districts that seek to develop policies on religious expression. I have enclosed a list of associations and groups that can provide information to school districts and parents who seek to learn more about religious expression in our nation's public schools.
In addition, citizens can turn to the U.S. Department of Education web site (http://www.ed.gov) for information about the guidelines and other activities of the Department that support the growing effort of educators and religious communities to support the education of our nation's children.
Finally, I encourage teachers and principals to see the First Amendment as something more than a piece of dry, old parchment locked away in the national attic gathering dust. It is a vital living principle, a call to action, and a demand that each generation reaffirm its connection to the basic idea that is America -- that we are a free people who protect our freedoms by respecting the freedom of others who differ from us.
Our history as a nation reflects the history of the Puritan, the Quaker, the Baptist, the Catholic, the Jew and many others fleeing persecution to find religious freedom in America. The United States remains the most successful experiment in religious freedom that the world has ever known because the First Amendment uniquely balances freedom of private religious belief and expression with freedom from state-imposed religious expression.
Public schools can neither foster religion nor preclude it. Our public schools must treat religion with fairness and respect and vigorously protect religious expression as well as the freedom of conscience of all other students. In so doing our public schools reaffirm the First Amendment and enrich the lives of their students.
I encourage you to share this information widely and in the most appropriate manner with your school community. Please accept my sincere thanks for your continuing work on behalf of all of America's children.
Richard W. Riley
U.S. Secretary of Education
Check it out. It's legit. It's on the Department of Education's website.