WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Rod Paige on Wednesday stood by his comments favoring schools that appreciate "the values of the Christian community," but said he was not trying to impose his religious views on others.
At a hastily called news conference, Paige told reporters, "I understand completely and respect the separation of church and state." He called himself a "fiery advocate" of public education.
Critics, including some Democratic lawmakers and the Anti-Defamation League, seized on Paige's comments in a story run by the Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system," Paige was quoted as saying. "In a religious environment the value system is set. That's not the case in a public school, where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values."
Paige said Wednesday that he meant only that schools with broad missions and diverse populations face grater challenges than those with a focused content and message. Communities should decide on values taught in schools, provided they follow the law, he said.
Paige contended that his comments were taken out of context because he was referring to universities and not public elementary and secondary schools.
"I can't honestly say this sounds like much of a clarification," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Paige said his record as a school board member, school superintendent and education secretary proves that he respects religious diversity. He challenged critics to find "any modicum of a situation where there was some imposition of my views on another person."
Congressional Democrats want to meet with Paige to discuss issues such as race and religion.
"For Secretary Paige to say that the upbringing of one class of children offers superior morality compared to other children is offensive and hurtful," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., urged Paige "to repudiate these divisive comments and reaffirm your commitment to students of all religions."
Paige said he understood his critics' desire for clarification, but added: "I don't think I have anything to apologize for." He said it was proper for the nation's public school leader to express personal views.
"I grew up with my faith," said Paige, a Baptist. "I grew up with who I am."
William Bennett, education secretary under President Reagan and author of The Book of Virtues, came to Paige's defense.
"He'd prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community. Who's opposed to that?" Bennett said.
Paige oversees a public school system that serves roughly 47 million students and his agency also helps set higher education policy.
The Baptist Press story quoted Paige as saying: "All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith. Where a child is taught that, there is a source of strength greater than themselves."
A recording of the interview shows Paige was responding to a question about whether Christian, public or private schools offer the best deal.
"That would vary, because each of them have real strong points and some of them have vulnerabilities," Paige answered. "But you know, all things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith."