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Students Encounter Prayer Policies

February 5, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Each day before he tackles advanced Latin at his Georgia high school, Darius Trimble observes a mandatory moment of silence. Sometimes the 12th grader uses the time to go over his lessons, sometimes he prays.

``It’s good because it’s a time where everybody just stops and thinks for a minute,″ said the 17-year-old Trimble, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who likes the option of practicing his faith privately. ``Since it’s morning time, some people try to sleep. The main thing is, it’s a break.″

In the nearly 40 years since the Supreme Court banned organized school prayer, more states have delighted religious conservatives and angered civil libertarians by enacting moment-of-silence laws that either encourage or require public schools to observe a minute of silence for meditation, prayer or reflection at the start of every school day.

Civil liberties groups condemn the movement as a backdoor attempt to flout the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court rulings against organized prayer in schools, which said it violates the constitutional dividing line between church and state. Legal challenges have been mounted in several states.

Georgia’s moment-of-silence law was the first in the nation to survive a court challenge. Last week, Virginia moved a step closer to requiring the silent period.

Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, expects the Virginia law as it appears to be heading to face legal challenges. ``There is a pretty strong record that the effort is to bring back prayer into Virginia schools,″ he said.

Teachers and students approach the silent moment in different ways. Not all teachers block off the time, and when they do the children often fill the brief time as they wish: praying, passing notes, studying, just keeping quiet or even napping.

``But the teachers are real good about letting them know that you’re not supposed to be talking at that time,″ said Trimble, of Lithonia, Ga.

Conservatives say the practice encourages prayer and reflection and also builds character and combats violence in schools. In Virginia, Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore supports the measure.

Lynn said state legislators used last April’s school shootings in Littleton, Colo., to push moments of silence, posting of the Ten Commandments, creationism and other religious policies into public schools.

``If these legislators can’t find any better solution than moments of silence, they ought to find a new line of work,″ he said. ``This is not a very serious endeavor for solving real problems. You just have taxpayers spending money to defend the indefensible.″

More than 20 states and the territory of Guam have a moment of silence law on their books, according to a search of a legal database. The states include Arizona, Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

Mississippi and Oklahoma are among states considering similar laws.

Georgia law’s, which survived review by a federal appeals court in 1997, says students should open the day with 60 seconds of ``silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day.″ Laws in North Dakota and New Jersey were struck down because they were seen as encouraging students to pray.

Kevin McDowell, general counsel for Indiana’s Education Department, advises school boards there not to follow the 1975 state law because it could fall into that category. ``Anytime you have law on the books that falls into constitutional disfavor, someone may rely on it to their detriment,″ he said.

``There are misunderstandings about what the Supreme Court has said on that,″ Matthew D. Staver of the Orlando, Fla.- based Liberty Counsel, a legal organization helping defend the silent moment in Louisiana. ``To the contrary, a moment of silence would be considered constitutional because during that time you have, you can pray or you can look at your tennis shoes.″

Alabama, which lost a Supreme Court challenge, enacted its current moment-of-silence law in 1998. Lawmakers said they hoped the law, which requires up to a minute of silent reflection, would help ease tensions over school prayer.

Backers say they want a mandatory time period because teachers and school officials charged with cramming many lessons into a short day would neglect to offer the time voluntarily.

``It’s just not on their radar screen,″ said Andrew Linebaugh, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association. ``The principal hasn’t directed them to do this, so some classes do the Pledge of Allegiance and some may do a moment of silence.″

Parents like Nancy Mitchell of Montgomery, Ala., want their children to have and use a moment of silence.

``They are very comfortable with it; we discuss it at home and we pray at home,″ said Mitchell, a mother of three. ``Of course I would like to have God brought back into our classrooms anyway.″

``It floors me to attend a meeting with the legislature and legislators get to pray, yet they don’t allow our students to pray (openly),″ she said.

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