‘Moment of silence’ has limits

Sunday, February 16, 1997

Some of us think that a “moment of silence” might
be an equitable and immediate solution to the question of prayer
in the schools. However, the question then arises what stipulations
and prefaces would accompany the practice. Obviously there are
many types of “moments of silence.” Would you explain
and describe what is appropriate in a public school?
Lois Jean White, Knoxville, Tenn.

A growing number of school districts across the nation now require
a moment of silence at the beginning of each school day. If the
practice does not encourage prayer over any other quiet, contemplative
activity, it is constitutional.

However, a moment of silence that is used to promote prayer will
be struck down by the Supreme Court. The court has made clear
that the First Amendment prohibits the government from sponsoring
religious exercises in the public schools.

School districts that require or permit a moment of silence ought
to give clear guidelines to teachers on how to introduce this
observance to students. Generally, the teacher may tell the students
that they are free to use the time for any silent activity, such
as thinking, meditating, praying or reflecting. Such a “neutral”
moment of silence is appropriate because it neither promotes
nor inhibits religion.

A moment of silence is not the only time students may pray in
school. Many Americans still believe that the Supreme Court ruled
against prayer in public schools. Not true. The court struck down
state-sponsored or state-organized prayer in the

Public school students are free to pray alone or in groups as
long as the activity is not disruptive and does not infringe upon
the rights of others. Students have the right to say grace before
meals and to pray before their math test — or whenever they feel
so moved. In many school districts, for example, students gather
around the flagpole for prayer before school begins. Students
have the right to do this, as long as the event is not sponsored
by the school and other students are not pressured to attend.

Many students in secondary schools now have religious clubs where
they can pray, read scriptures, and otherwise practice their faith.
Such clubs are permitted under the Equal Access Act as long as
they are student-initiated and student-led and the school allows
other clubs not related to the curriculum.

Some constitutional questions about student prayer remain undecided.
Lower courts are divided, for example, over whether a student may
offer prayers at a graduation ceremony. Parents and school officials
should seek legal advice about the rules that apply in their state.

Differences over student-led graduation prayers, however, should
not obscure the strong consensus across much of the political
and religious spectrum about the constitutionality of a genuinely
neutral moment of silence. There is also broad agreement that
the religious-liberty rights of students include the right to
pray, as long as the activity is truly voluntary and student-initiated.