Education Secretary William J. Bennett, saying the American political order and the Judeo-Christian tradition "are wedded together," yesterday called for a new "national conversation and debate on the place of religious belief in our society."
"Our values as a free people and the central values of the Judeo-Christian tradition are flesh of the flesh, blood of the blood," said Bennett, borrowing words used during the consecration at a Mass, in a speech to a Roman Catholic lay organization meeting here.
"The fate of our democracy is intimately intertwined -- 'entangled' if you will -- with the vitality of the Judeo-Christian tradition," Bennett told the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus. "From the Judeo-Christian tradition come our values, our principles, the animating spirit of our institutions."
Bennett's speech was the strongest to date from an administration official on matters of religion and government, and he predicted that he "will be charged with being divisive."
Reaction to his speech was sharp from civil libertarians, who yesterday accused him of turning his office into a pulpit for his religious beliefs.
The education secretary has been increasingly critical of the Supreme Court for a series of recent decisions seen as setbacks for some of President Reagan's policies. These decisions include a ruling barring a period of silence set aside specifically for prayer in schools and a separate decision saying it is unlawful to spend public money to send teachers into parochial schools to teach remedial courses.
Bennett, who attended Catholic schools as a youngster, said "four decades of misguided court decisions . . . have thrust religion and things touched by religion out of public schools.
"These decisions have hurt Catholic parents. But they have hurt public schools as well . . . for neutrality to religion turned out to bring with it a neutrality to those values that issue from religion."
Anthony Podesta, president of People for the American Way, said Bennett "seems to be bent on being the secretary of evangelism. The Department of Justice and the Department of Education are joining hands in a concerted effort to confuse public opinion about what separation of church and state means."
"He has an outrageous view toward church-state separation, and it's outrageous that someone with that view should be in public office," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "He seems to be completely unable to separate his personal religious views from his public office."
Conn added, "It's time the administration rein him in on this. He seems to be trying to carry on a religious crusade from his public office."
Bennett, in his speech, promised "we at the Department of Education will do our best to nullify the damage" of last month's Supreme Court ruling against remedial programs in parochial schools. He said he will soon propose legislation to distribute federal funds for the disadvantaged directly to parents via a voucher system.
In addition, the administration is backing a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in the schools and a bill, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), to strip the federal courts of their jurisdiction in school prayer cases.
Last week, Education Undersecretary Gary Bauer, Bennett's liaison to New Right groups, endorsed the school prayer measures at a Moral Majority news conference.
Bennett yesterday pledged that "the administration in which I serve will continue to press for legislation and, where necessary, judicial reconsideration and constitutional amendment to help correct the current situation of disdain for religious belief."
Later, Attorney General Edwin Meese III told the gathering that "by gradually removing . . . from public education and public discourse all references to traditional religion and substituting instead the jargon and ritual and morality of the cult of self, we run the risk of subordinating all religions to some new secular religion which is a far cry from the traditional values."