Home > 1995 Presidential Documents > pd17jy95 Remarks Prior to a Meeting With Congressional Leaders and an Exchange...

pd17jy95 Remarks Prior to a Meeting With Congressional Leaders and an Exchange...

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coming today.
    Last week at my alma mater, Georgetown, I had a chance to do 
something that I hope to do more often as President, to have a genuine 
conversation with the American people about the best way for us to move 
forward as a nation and to resolve some of the great questions that are 
nagging us today. I believe, as I have said repeatedly, that our Nation 
faces two great challenges: first of all, to restore the American dream 
of opportunity, and the American tradition of responsibility; and 
second, to bring our country together amidst all of our diversity in a 
stronger community so that we can find common ground and move forward 
    In my first 2 years as President, I worked harder on the first 
question, how to get the economy going, how to deal with the specific 
problems of the country, how to inspire more responsibility through 
things like welfare reform and child support enforcement. But I have 
come to believe that unless we can solve the second problem we'll never 
really solve the first one. Unless we can find a way to honestly and 
openly debate our differences and find common ground, to celebrate all 
the diversity of America and still give people a chance to live in the 
way they think is right, so that we are stronger for our differences, 
not weaker, we won't be able to meet the economic and other challenges 
before us. And therefore, I have decided that I should spend some more 
time in some conversations about things Americans care a lot about and 
that they're deeply divided over.
    Today I want to talk about a subject that can provoke a fight in 
nearly any country town or on any city street corner in America, 
religion. It's a subject that should not drive us apart. And we have a 
mechanism as old as our Constitution for bringing us together.
    This country, after all, was founded by people of profound faith who 
mentioned Divine Providence and the guidance of God twice in the 
Declaration of Independence. They were searching for a place to express 
their faith freely without persecution. We take it for granted today 
that that's so in this country, but it was not always so. And it 
certainly has not always been so across the world. Many of the people 
who were our first settlers came here primarily because they were 
looking for a place where they could practice their faith without being 
persecuted by the Government.
    Here in Virginia's soil, as the Secretary of Education has said, the 
oldest and deepest roots of religious liberty can be found. The First 
Amendment was modeled on Thomas Jefferson's Statutes of Religious 
Liberty for Virginia. He thought so much of it that he asked that on his 
gravestone it be said not that he was President, not that he had been 
Vice President or Secretary of State but that he was the founder of the 
University of Virginia, the author of the Declaration of Independence 
and the author of the Statutes of Religious Liberty for the State of 
    And of course, no one did more than James Madison to put the entire 
Bill of Rights in our Constitution, and especially, the first amendment. 
Religious freedom is

[[Page 1221]]

literally our first freedom. It is the first thing mentioned in the 
Declaration of Independence. And as it opens, it says Congress cannot 
make a law that either establishes a religion or restricts the free 
exercise of religion. Now, as with every provision of our Constitution, 
that law has had to be interpreted over the years, and it has in various 
ways that some of us agree with and some of us disagree with. But one 
thing is indisputable: The first amendment has protected our freedom to 
be religious or not religious, as we choose, with the consequence that 
in this highly secular age the United States is clearly the most 
conventionally religious country in the entire world, at least the 
entire industrialized world. We have more than 250,000 places of 
worship. More people go to church here every week or to synagogue or to 
their mosque or other place of worship than in any other country in the 
world. More peoples believe religion is directly important to their 
lives than in any other advanced, industrialized country in the world. 
And it is not an accident. It is something that has always been a part 
of our life.
    I grew up in Arkansas which is, except for West Virginia, probably 
the State that's most heavily Southern Baptist Protestant in the 
country. But we had two synagogues and a Greek Orthodox church in my 
hometown. Not so long ago in the heart of our agricultural country in 
eastern Arkansas one of our universities did a big outreach to students 
in the Middle East, and before you know it, out there on this flat land 
where there was no building more than two stories high, there rose a 
great mosque. And all the farmers from miles around drove in to see what 
the mosque was like and try to figure out what was going on there. 
    This is a remarkable country. And I have tried to be faithful to 
that tradition that we have of the first amendment. It's something 
that's very important to me.
    Secretary Riley mentioned when I was at Georgetown, Georgetown is a 
Jesuit school, a Catholic school. All the Catholics were required to 
take theology, and those of us who weren't Catholic took a course in 
world's religion, which we called Buddhism for Baptists. [Laughter] And 
I began a sort of love affair with the religions that I did not know 
anything about before that time.
    It's a personal thing to me because of my own religious faith and 
the faith of my family. And I've always felt that in order for me to be 
free to practice my faith in this country, I had to let other people be 
as free as possible to practice theirs, and that the Government had an 
extraordinary obligation to bend over backwards not to do anything to 
impose any set of views on any group of people or to allow others to do 
it under the cover of law.
    That's why I was very proud--one of the proudest things I've been 
able to do as President was to sign into law the Religious Freedom 
Restoration Act in 1993. And it was designed to reverse the decision of 
the Supreme Court that essentially made it pretty easy for Government, 
in the pursuit of its legitimate objectives, to restrict the exercise of 
people's religious liberties. This law basically said--I won't use the 
legalese--the bottom line was that if the Government is going to 
restrict anybody's legitimate exercise of religion they have to have an 
extraordinarily good reason and no other way to achieve their compelling 
objective other than to do this. You have to bend over backwards to 
avoid getting in the way of people's legitimate exercise of their 
religious convictions. That's what that law said.
    This is something I've tried to do throughout my career. When I was 
Governor, for example, we were having--of Arkansas in the eighties--you 
may remember this--there were religious leaders going to jail in America 
because they ran child care centers that they refused to have certified 
by the State because they said it undermined their ministry. We solved 
that problem in our State. There were people who were prepared to go to 
jail over the home schooling issue in the eighties because they said it 
was part of their religious ministry. We solved that problem in our 
    With the Religious Freedom Restoration Act we made it possible, 
clearly, in areas that were previously ambiguous for Native Americans, 
for American Jews, for Muslims to practice the full range of their 
religious practices when they might have otherwise come in contact with 
some governmental regulation.

[[Page 1222]]

    And in a case that was quite important to the Evangelicals in our 
country, I instructed the Justice Department to change our position 
after the law passed on a tithing case where a family had been tithing 
to their church and the man declared bankruptcy, and the Government took 
the position they could go get the money away from the church because he 
knew he was bankrupt at the time he gave it. And I realized in some ways 
that was a close question, but I thought we had to stand up for the 
proposition that people should be able to practice their religious 
    Secretary Riley and I, in another context, have also learned as we 
have gone along in this work that all the religions obviously share a 
certain devotion to a certain set of values which make a big difference 
in the schools. I want to commend Secretary Riley for his relentless 
support of the so-called character education movement in our schools, 
which is clearly led in many schools that had great troubles to reduce 
drop-out rates, increased performance in schools, better citizenship in 
ways that didn't promote any particular religious views but at least 
unapologetically advocated values shared by all major religions.
    In this school, one of the reasons I wanted to come here is because 
I recognize that this work has been done here. There's a course in this 
school called combating intolerance, which deals not only with racial 
issues, but also with religious differences, and studies times in the 
past when people have been killed in mass numbers and persecuted because 
of their religious convictions.
    You can make a compelling argument that the tragic war in Bosnia 
today is more of a religious war than an ethnic war. The truth is, 
biologically, there is no difference in the Serbs, the Croats and the 
Muslims. They are Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, and they 
are so for historic reasons. But it's really more of a religious war 
than an ethnic war when properly viewed. And I think it's very important 
that the people in this school are learning that and, in the process, 
will come back to the distilled essence that every great religion 
teaches honesty and trustworthiness and responsibility and devotion to 
family and charity and compassion toward others.
    Our sense of our own religion and our respect for others has really 
helped us to work together for two centuries. It's made a big difference 
in the way we live and the way we function and our ability to overcome 
adversity. The Constitution wouldn't be what it is without James 
Madison's religious values. But it's also, frankly, given us a lot of 
elbow room. I remember, for example, that Abraham Lincoln was derided by 
his opponents because he belonged to no organized church. But if you 
read his writings and you study what happened to him, especially after 
he came to the White House, he might have had more spiritual depth than 
any person ever to hold the office that I now have the privilege to 
    So we have followed this balance, and it has served us well. Now 
what I want to talk to you about for a minute is that our Founders 
understood that religious freedom basically was a coin with two sides. 
The Constitution protected the free exercise of religion but prohibited 
the establishment of religion. It's a careful balance that's uniquely 
American. It is the genius of the first amendment. It does not, as some 
people have implied, make us a religion-free country. It has made us the 
most religious country in the world.
    It does not convert--let's just take the areas of greatest 
controversy now. All the fights have come over 200 years over what those 
two things mean: What does it mean for the government to establish a 
religion, and what does it mean for a government to interfere with the 
free exercise of religion. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was 
designed to clarify the second provision, government interfering with 
the free exercise of religion and to say you can do that almost never. 
You can do that almost never.
    We have had a lot more fights in the last 30 years over what the 
Government establishment of religion means. And that's what the whole 
debate is now over the issue of school prayer, religious practices in 
the schools and things of that kind. And I want to talk about it because 
our schools are the places where so much of our hearts in America and 
all of our futures are. And I'd like to begin by just sort of pointing 
out what's going on today and then discussing it if I could. And again, 
this is always kind of in- 

[[Page 1223]]

flammatory; I want to have a noninflammatory talk about it. [Laughter]
    First of all, let me tell you a little about my personal history. 
Before the Supreme Court's decision in Engel against Vitale, which said 
that the State of New York could not write a prayer that had to be said 
in every school in New York every day, school prayer was as common as 
apple pie in my hometown. And when I was in junior high school, it was 
my responsibility either to start every day by reading the Bible or get 
somebody else to do it. Needless to say, I exerted a lot of energy in 
finding someone else to do it from time to time, being a normal 13-year-
old boy.
    Now, you could say, ``Well, it certainly didn't do any harm. It 
might have done a little good.'' But remember what I told you. We had 
two synagogues in my hometown. We also had pretended to be deeply 
religious, and there were no blacks in my school. They were in a 
segregated school. And I can tell you that all of us who were in there 
doing it never gave a second thought most of the time to the fact that 
we didn't have blacks in our schools and that there were Jews in the 
classroom who were probably deeply offended by half the stuff we were 
saying or doing or maybe made to feel inferior.
    I say that to make the point that we have not become less religious 
over the last 30 years by saying that schools cannot impose a particular 
religion, even if it's a Christian religion and 98 percent of the kids 
in the schools are Christian and Protestant. I'm not sure the Catholics 
were always comfortable with what we did either. We had a big Catholic 
population in my school and in my hometown. But I did that--I have been 
a part of this debate we are talking about. This is a part of my 
personal life experience. So I have seen a lot of progress made and I 
agreed with the Supreme Court's original decision in Engel v. Vitale.
    Now, since then, I've not always agreed with every decision the 
Supreme Court made in the area of the first amendment. I said the other 
day I didn't think the decision on the prayer at the commencement, where 
the Rabbi was asked to give the nonsectarian prayer at the 
commencement--I didn't agree with that because I didn't think it any 
coercion at all. And I thought that people were not interfered with. And 
I didn't think it amounted to the establishment of a religious practice 
by the Government. So I have not always agreed.
    But I do believe that on balance, the direction of the first 
amendment has been very good for America and has made us the most 
religious country in the world by keeping the Government out of creating 
religion, supporting particular religions, interfering, and interfering 
with other people's religious practices.
    What is giving rise to so much of this debate today I think is two 
things. One is the feeling that the schools are special and a lot of 
kids are in trouble, and a lot of kids are in trouble for nonacademic 
reasons, and we want our kids to have good values and have a good 
    Let me give you just one example. There is today, being released, a 
new study of drug use among young people by the group that Joe Califano 
was associated with, Council for a Drug-Free America, massive poll of 
young people themselves. It's a fascinating study, and I urge all of you 
to get it. Joe came in a couple of days ago and briefed me on it. It 
shows disturbingly that even though serious drug use is down overall in 
groups in America, casual drug use is coming back up among some of our 
young people who no longer believe that it's dangerous and have 
forgotten that it's wrong and are basically living in a world that I 
think is very destructive.
    And I see it all the time. It's coming back up. Even though we're 
investing money and trying to combat it in education and treatment 
programs and supporting things like the D.A.R.E. program. And we're 
breaking more drug rings than ever before around the world. It's 
almost--it's very disturbing because it's fundamentally something that 
is kind of creeping back in.
    But the study shows that there are three major causes for young 
people not using drugs. One is they believe that their future depends 
upon their not doing it; they're optimistic about the future. The more 
optimistic kids are about the future, the less likely they are to use 
drugs. Second is having a strong, positive relationship with their 
parents. The closer kids are to their parents and the more

[[Page 1224]]

tuned in to them they are and the more their parents are good role 
models, the less likely kids are to use drugs. You know what the third 
is? How religious the children are. The more religious the children are, 
the less likely they are to use drugs.
    So what's the big fight over religion in the schools and what does 
it mean to us and why are people so upset about it? I think there are 
basically three reasons. One is, people believe that--most Americans 
believe that if you're religious, personally religious, you ought to be 
able to manifest that anywhere at any time, in a public or private 
place. Second, I think that most Americans are disturbed if they think 
that our Government is becoming anti-religious, instead of adhering to 
the firm spirit of the first amendment: don't establish, don't interfere 
with, but respect. And the third thing is people worry about our 
national character as manifest in the lives of our children. The crime 
rate is going down in almost every major area in America today, but the 
rate of violent random crime among very young people is still going up.
    So these questions take on a certain urgency today for personal 
reasons and for larger social reasons. And this old debate that Madison 
and Jefferson started over 200 years ago is still being spun out today 
especially as it relates to what can and cannot be done in our schools, 
and the whole question, specific question, of school prayer, although I 
would argue it goes way beyond that.
    So let me tell you what I think the law is and what we're trying to 
do about it, since I like the first amendment, and I think we're better 
off because of it, and I think that if you have two great pillars--the 
government can't establish and the government can't interfere with--
obviously there are going to be a thousand different factual cases that 
will arise at any given time, and the courts from time to time will make 
decisions that we don't all agree with. But the question is, are the 
pillars the right pillars, and do we more or less come out in the right 
place over the long run.
    The Supreme Court is like everybody else. It's imperfect, and so are 
we. Maybe they're right, and we're wrong. But we are going to have these 

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