A "MOMENT OF SILENCE" IN PLACE OF PRAYER IN U.S. PUBLIC SCHOOLS
|"Public schools can neither foster religion
nor preclude it. Our public schools must treat religion with fairness
and respect and vigorously protect religious expression as well as the
freedom of conscience of all other students. In so doing our public
schools reaffirm the First Amendment and enrich the lives of their
students". Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley June 1998|
|"There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights.
malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it
once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter
our common schools, they would be destroyed." Supreme Court of
Wisconsin, Weiss v. District Board, 1890-MAR-18.|
Problems with school prayer:
Contrary to the belief of many people, prayer is widely permitted in U.S. public
schools. Students can pray in school busses, at the
flag-pole, in student religious clubs, in the cafeteria, in the corridors, etc.
student can come early to class, sit quietly, and pray silently. However, a U.S. Supreme Court decision
( Engel v. Vitale; 1962) ruled that
prayer is not normally
permitted in public school classrooms when a class is in session. It would violate the principle of church-state separation which, according to the Court, is
inferred by the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The separation principle is extended to
public schools as an arm of the government.
Many conservative Christians, and others, promote the concept of having Christian prayers in
public schools. They feel that if students start the day with a prayer,
then they will behave in a more spiritual and ethical manner during the
day. "Some, like former Secretary of Education William Bennett
blame the 1962 decision... for everything from low SAT scores to high
teenage pregnancy rates." 1 Others oppose
school prayer because:
|It violates the principle of church and state.|
|Forcing non-Christian students to recite a prayer which violates
their religious beliefs is repugnant.|
|Reciting Christian prayers would imply that other religions are
inferior. Non-Christians might become marginalized and ridiculed by
the majority of fellow students. This concern has become more
prominent since the Columbine shooting in
Littleton CO. That tragedy, and many similar shootings, were caused by one or more
students being rejected by others in the student body. |
An alternative to school prayer:
One Web site, the Natural Prayer Project (NPP),
recommends that schools follow a suggestion made by Colin Powell. He recommends a simple
moment of silence at the start of each school day. Students could use this interval to pray, meditate, contemplate or
study. 2 A book "An Outrageous Idea: Natural Prayer" written by Patty Jo
Cornish and illustrated by James Hubbell promotes this concept. 3
"We have forgotten that we are all in this together. And, we keep separating
ourselves from ourselves, by color, by football teams, by clothes, by money, by creed, by
greed, by boundaries, by age, and so on and on. We need something to pull us all together.
Natural Prayer could be that miracle. It includes everyone, even the non-believers."
A moment of silence would allow students
with religious beliefs as diverse as Atheism, Christianity,
Judaism, Islam, Neopaganism, etc. to participate together; some would pray; others
would reflect on the upcoming day; others would meditate. There would be
provision for all. A moment of silence could contribute to acceptance of
diversity within the student body, and eventually lead to less violence on
Is a moment of silence constitutional?
Court rulings on "moment of silence" laws have been
|Alabama: In Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Alabama
"moment of silence" law was unconstitutional. It had
allowed public schools in the state to start each classroom day with a
moment "for meditation or voluntary prayer." The court
decided 6 to 3 that the legislature's sole purpose in passing the law was
to promote religion. Their ruling "cited several statements from
legislative records that revealed a desire to sponsor prayer in the
state's public school system." In addition, the preamble to
the law stated that the purpose of the law was to circumvent the ban on
school prayer. |
The Alabama legislature passed a new moment of silence law during
|Virginia: This state has had a law on the books since 1976, which permitted school
districts to implement 60 seconds of silence at the start of each school
day. A new law came into effect on 2000-APR-1.
It requires all Virginian public school students to observe a moment
of silence . Kent Willis, director of the
Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the
legislation because he sees its policies as "potential openings to
unconstitutional prayer in schools." The ACLU challenged the law on two bases:
|It violated the principle of separation of church and state because it
encouraged students to pray.|
|It allowed for prayer during the moment of silence.|
The law was supported by lawyers of the State of Virginia who argued persuasively
that the legislation had a secular purpose, and favored neither religion nor a secular
lifestyle. Attorney General Mark Earley said: "A moment of silence
will contribute to maintaining order and discipline in our classrooms and
allow students time to thoughtfully prepare themselves for the upcoming
educational activities of the day." 5
In 2000-OCT, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled in a 15 page decision that
the law was constitutional. He wrote, in part: "The court finds that the
Commonwealth's daily observance of one minute of silence act is constitutional. The act
was enacted for a secular purpose, does not advance or inhibit religion, nor is there
excessive entanglement with religion...Students may think as they wish -- and this
thinking can be purely religious in nature or purely secular in nature. All that is
required is that they sit silently" 6
The ACLU expects to appeal the ruling.
Sources of additional information:
* This is in an Acrobat PDF file. You can obtain a free software Adobe
** This book can be downloaded as either an Adobe Acrobat PDF file or a
Microsoft Word DOC file.
Patti Jo Cornish, "An outrageous idea: natural prayer."
Currently out of print. The
Amazon.com online book store may be able to obtain a copy.
Jeremy Leaming, "Virginia school district considers Lord's Prayer,
moment of silence," First Amendment Center, at: http://www.freedomforum.org/religion/1999/9/1vaprayer.asp
Adrienne Mand, "ACLU doesn't like sound of school silence,"
FOX news, at: http://www.foxnews.com/national/090100/
"Court upholds constitutionality of 'silence' law,"
Baptist Joint Committee. Report from the Capital, 2000-NOV-7, Page 3.
- "Constitutional amendment on school prayer or moment of silence,"
ACLU, (1996), at: http://www.aclu.org/library/aaprayer.html
- The Natural Prayer Project is available at:
Copyright 1995 to 2001 incl. by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2001-MAY-11
Author: B.A. Robinson