Religion and the Schools

MUCH of what President Clinton said this week about the right of students to practice their religions, whether in school or out, is correct - even axiomatic. Individuals are free to pray before exams, before meals, whenever. And religion, as a subject, should have a place in the intellectual forum.

These things seem obvious, but they need affirmation because, as the president observed, the climate in public schools these days is often distinctly chilly toward religion. That chilliness is less a matter of antipathy than extreme caution, born out of hard experience and concerns about lawsuits. School officials, not sure where to draw the line, are inclined to draw it into a tight secularity.

Mr. Clinton wants to loosen that line. He specified, in a memo to the Education and Justice Departments, that students should be allowed to pray in groups as well as individually, write papers on religious themes, and even argue the merits of their faith, so long as they don't harass others.

The moans of educators have probably already reached the White House. How does a teacher objectively grade a devotional essay? What happens when group prayer grows beyond quiet, intimate gatherings? How does a civics teacher temper the zealous student bent on conversion? Can schools regulate such activity without running afoul of the ''establishment clause'' of the First Amendment?

Many educators won't be thanking Clinton. Nor will many religious conservatives, whose political thunder he is presumably trying to steal. They'll still want a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer.

The president is trying to open a middle, or common, ground between that extreme approach to breaching the church-state ''wall'' and a dogmatic exclusion of religion from the realm of education.

No matter how detailed the guidelines eventually sent to local school districts, defining that ground won't be easy. But today, perhaps more than ever, it is necessary.

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