Freedom Writer - December 1994
Moment of silence in public schools
By Barbara A. Simon, Esq.
Thirty-two years ago in _Engel_v._Vitale_ the Supreme Court ruled
that state-sponsored school prayer violated the Establishment Clause.
Justice Hugo Black, author of the majority opinion in Engel, reminded
his readers that the Establishment Clause rests upon the belief that
"a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and
degrade religion." Since 1962, there have been numerous attempts,
including attempts at formally amending the Constitution, to bring
state-sponsored school prayer back into the classroom.
The current wave of attempts, which began in the mid-1980s, is the
"moment of silence" ploy. In the 1985 _Wallace_v._Jaffree_ decision,
the Court struck down an Alabama state statute, which authorized a
moment of silence to be used for "meditation or voluntary prayer"
in the public schools. The Court applied the _Lemon_v._Kurtzman_ (1971)
standard of review (known as the Lemon Test) to the Alabama moment
of silence law. The _Lemon_ standard, which is frequently employed
by the Court to review Establishment Clause cases, requires that
if the challenged practice is to be found constitutional it must have:
(1) a legitimate secular purpose; (2) the principle or primary effect
of not advancing or inhibiting religion; and (3) not fostering excessive
governmental entanglement with religion. In applying the secular purpose
test, Justice Stevens argued that it was appropriate to ask whether
the governmental purpose was to endorse or disapprove of religion.
The legislative history showed that the bill's sponsor stated the
law was "an effort to return voluntary school prayer" to the public
schools of Alabama, and therefore was violative of the Establishment
Two years later the Court had been expected to rule on a New Jersey
law, which required that students in public schools be allowed a moment
of silence for "quiet and private contemplation or introspection,"
however, the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Among the many states that have adopted "moment of silence" laws are
Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Tennessee,
Virginia, and South Carolina. Florida, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania
are considering similar laws.
This past August, in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, a social studies teacher
at South Gwinnett High, Brian Bown, was fired by the school board
for lecturing, as an act of protest, throughout the newly enacted
moment of silence. Bown told the Associated Press: "I either violate
my conscience and beliefs and follow a law that is blatantly unconstitutional,
or I'm fired." Bown stated that the law violated his conscience because
the law is intended as a first step to get state-sponsored prayer
into the schools. Bown intends to take his case to federal court.
South Carolina's recently enacted moment of silence law was spearheaded
by Rep. Becky Meacham of (R-York). In an interview in the _Columbia_
State_ she admitted that her real goal was school prayer legislation,
but a moment of silence was the best she could do -- for now.
These back-door attempts to promote state-sponsored prayer in our
public schools provide all the more reason to remind those pro-state-sponsored
prayer in public school advocates of Justice Hugo Black's admonition:
that "a union of government and religion tends to destroy government
and degrade religion."
_Sidebar: [ref002]Potential church-state cases for the 1994-1995 term_
[ref003][ref004] Return to table of contents
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