Clinton on Teacher-Led School Prayer

At a news conference following a meeting of leaders of the 18-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization (APEC) in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Tuesday, November 15, President Clinton was asked whether he would support a constitutional amendment for school prayer. His reply was:

Q: (Off mike) press conference was the idea that there was proposed a constitutional amendment to restore prayer to public schools. Is that something that you support? Do you think the country needs that?

Clinton: Well, what I think the country needs and what I think the schools need is a sense that there are certain basic values of citizenship, including valuing the right of people to have and express their faith, which can be advocated without crossing the line of separation of church and state and without in any way undermining the fabric of our society. Indeed, the schools, perhaps today more than ever before, need to be the instrument by which we transfer important values of citizenship. One of the things that was in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that I signed that passed with strong bipartisan support but it was little noticed was the advocacy of basically the teaching of civic values in the schools.

Now on the school prayer thing, I can only tell you what my personal opinion is about that. I have always supported voluntary prayer in the schools, I have always thought that the question was when does voluntary prayer really become coercive to people who have different religious views from those who are in the majority in any particular classroom, so that, for example, I personally did not believe that it was coercive to have a prayer at an outdoor sporting event or at a graduation event because I don't believe that is coercive to people who don't participate in it. So I think there may, there is room for that.

Obviously, I want to reserve judgment, I want to see the specifics, but I think this whole values debate will go forward and will intensify in the next year, and again, I would say this ought to be something that unites the American people, not something that divides us. This ought not to be a partisan debate. The American people do not want us to be partisan, but they do want us to proceed in a way that is consistent with their values and that communicates those values to our children. So let's, we'll, I'll be glad to discuss it with them, I want to see what the details are. I certainly wouldn't rule it out, it depends on what it says.

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The family that filed the Supreme Court action leading to a ban on school-sponsored Bible reading and prayer recitation will be at the helm of an effort by American Atheists to defeat the proposed "voluntary" school Prayer Amendment.

Jon G. Murray, president of American Atheists, denounced Clinton's statement that he would sign a school prayer amendment. "Clinton is afraid that he is a lame duck president, and thinks that he can pander to the religious right by selling out the Bill of Rights," Murray said. "Even though he is religious, he should honor his oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Signing a school prayer bill or amendment is treason to the basic principles of this nation."

American Atheists will ask its members, Jon Murray said, to contribute to a "war chest" to combat the school prayer amendment. Details of the group's campaign will be made public December 15. Mr. Murray noted that it will include outreach to the media, schools, and legislatures. Already in the works is a handbook on the history and legality of school prayer, which will be provided to all members of Congress. "Every member of American Atheists will be called upon to work in this campaign," he said.

"We will not back down on this issue," Robin Murray-O'Hair, the group's executive secretary and daughter of famed Atheist Madalyn O'Hair, said. "If the school prayer amendment is passed by Congress -- that is, if this is more than election year pandering to the religious right -- we will continue our battle through the state ratification process."

American Atheists is a nonprofit, educational organization which works for state/church separation, the civil rights of Atheists, and the encouragement of Atheism. One of its founding tenets is "to advocate, labor for, and promote in all lawful ways the establishment and maintenance of a thoroughly secular system of education available to all."

That goal, in fact, was fundamental to the birth of American Atheists. The group was founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the women who initiated the case _Murray vs. Curlett_ which led to the 1963 Supreme Court decision that school-sponsored Bible reading and prayer recitation are unconstitutional. At the time of the case, Mrs. O'Hair's children attended the Baltimore public schools, where they were required to bow their heads during "voluntary" prayer as though they were praying although they, in fact, refused to utter the prayerful words.

For further comments, please contact Jon G. Murray or Robin Murray-O'Hair at (512) 458-1244.

Go Back to Shy David's School Prayer Page.