Stressing the importance of faith to a well-rounded education, President Clinton yesterday announced new guidelines promoting stronger partnerships between religious institutions and public schools.
Overall, the guidelines expand on a list of do's and don'ts published in 1995, answering a broad range of questions from how to teach about religion to what to do when students want to pray.
But in his weekly radio address, the president emphasized a new element: encouraging schools to actively invite churches and religious organizations to partner with them in a wide array of programs during and after school, including school safety, student literacy and discipline.
While these partnerships exist around the country, schools often are skittish about welcoming church groups for fear of crossing a constitutional line, so the president's rousing endorsement is likely to make them more popular.
"Finding the proper place for faith in our schools is a complex and emotional matter for many Americans," he said. "But I have never believed the Constitution required our schools to be religion-free zones, or that our children must check their faith at the schoolhouse door."
Some civil libertarians thought the president's remarks ignored a delicate constitutional balance by defending religious freedom but failing to mention the restraints.
In his short address, Clinton mentioned, for example, that students have the right to pray privately, the right to say grace, the right to read the Bible, without saying what they don't have the right to do.
"It certainly was a one-note address," said Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "I kept saying, 'Gee, where are the limits? Where is a specific and clear statement that these partnering programs cannot be used to evangelize and recruit students for specific religions.' "
By contrast, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley's letter to principals and the pamphlet of guidelines meant for school officials and volunteers more explicitly lay out the limits of what religious volunteers are permitted to do in public schools.
In describing the new partnerships, the guidelines emphasize that "it is not appropriate for members of faith communities to use their involvement in public schools as an occasion to encourage participation in religious activity."
They warn religious crisis counselors not to proselytize while students are emotionally sensitive. They tell schools not to hang religious symbols in classrooms and not to condition grades on participation in religious programs.
Most important, they tell schools not to limit participation in programs to religious groups but make them equally accessible to secular organizations.
Still, civil libertarians worried that inviting religious volunteers into schools without proper monitoring presents a potential for abuse. A crisis counselor alone with a child might be tempted to share his or her faith. A school might naturally turn to a single denomination popular in the area to the exclusion of others.
"Whenever religious institutions are involved in public schools, there is potentially a danger," said Elliot M. Mincberg, vice president of People for the American Way. "But I'm not sure that means you close the door altogether. The question is how do you do it effectively, carefully."
Lynn said making a church merely one among many volunteer groups would not address his concern.
"The Constitution requires a greater sensitivity for any government arrangement with religion than with any secular group," he said.
He added that schools would be required to open partnerships to unusual or unpopular groups, such as the neo-Nazi group World Church of the Creator.
Courts already have ended some partnerships. In Beaumont, Tex., a group of parents challenged the constitutionality of a "Clergy in the Schools" program, very similar to the type Clinton is proposing, in which priests, not dressed in clerical garb, counseled students about "civic values."
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas ruled for the parents, who had argued that their children were effectively forced to participate in a program they found offensive and that school officials were effectively promoting religion by according a special status to the visiting clergy.
The proper role of faith in schools is widely debated. This term, the Supreme Court has accepted cases about what kind of aid government may give to parochial schools and whether students may say prayers over the public address system at football games.
Still, new areas of cooperation between religious groups and civil libertarians, especially in schools, have emerged in the past 10 years. Last month, People for the American Way joined with several religious groups to publish a pamphlet explaining how to teach the Bible in public schools.