Virginia school district considers Lord’s Prayer, moment of silence

Wednesday, September 1, 1999

At the suggestion of a local evangelist and his supporters, a Virginia public school board has asked the superintendent to require district schools to post the Lord's Prayer and institute a daily moment of silence.

In early August, the Appomattox County School Board instructed the superintendent of the four-school district not far from Lynchburg to create policies requiring schools to post the Lord's Prayer in classrooms and open each day with a moment of silence.

The school board's request was prompted after the Rev. Jerry Childress, a Christian fundamentalist, and 175 of his followers spoke to the board. Childress told the school board that “When they took prayer out of the school, they took God out of school” and “let Satan in.”

The state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union said it would “take whatever legal action is appropriate” to prevent government-sponsored religious activity in the schools.

In a letter sent last week to Lannis Selz, chairman of the Appomattox School Board, the ACLU said it would be unconstitutional for the district to post the Lord's Prayer and to require students “to engage in a moment of silence for religious reasons.”

“Over the last two centuries, our nation's highest courts have concluded that religion is best protected when government maintains neutrality toward it, taking no action either to promote or hinder it,” wrote Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “This principle of separation of church and state allows individuals and families to choose their religious preferences without interference or influence from the government, and it is the reason that religious freedom thrives in our nation.”

Although Virginia has a law similar to those in at least 24 other states permitting school districts to impose a moment of silence at the start of school days, Willis said that if the moment of silence were adopted to encourage religious practice, then it would be susceptible to constitutional challenge.

In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law that authorized schools to start each day with a moment “for meditation or voluntary prayer.” By a 6-3 vote, the high court said the Alabama Legislature's sole purpose in enacting the statute was to promote religion. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, cited several statements from legislative records that revealed a desire to sponsor prayer in the state's public schools.

“The legislative intent to return prayer to the public schools is, of course, quite different from merely protecting every student's right to engage in voluntary prayer during an appropriate moment of silence during the schoolday,” Justice John Paul Stevens, wrote for the majority in Wallace v. Jaffree.

Five years earlier, the Supreme Court had invalidated a Kentucky law that required school districts to post copies of the Ten Commandments in classrooms. The court in Stone v. Graham stated that “the pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature.”

Posting copies of a Christian prayer in Virginia public school classrooms would be just as problematic, the ACLU warned Appomattox school officials.

“Certainly, if posting the Ten Commandments violates the Constitution, then posting the Lord's Prayer does as well,” Willis wrote.

A school board attorney has also said prayer policies could be unconstitutional, but Selz says he intends to push for them. He told The News & Advance, a Lynchburg paper, “it is time to change the status quo by any legal means we can.” According to Selz, communities, not federal courts, should influence public school policy.

“I think the right thing to do is institute policies that reflect the community values of Appomattox County,” Selz said. “I don't think that people think it is reasonable to leave any reference to God in the school parking lot and not be able to carry it into the school building.”

The Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s regarding prayer in the public schools only barred school officials from sponsoring, leading or encouraging student religious activities. Those decisions, however, noted that the First Amendment's religious-liberty clauses do permit students to express their own personal religious view and beliefs on school grounds. Also, courts have found that public schools can teach about religion, including the history of religion, comparative religion and role religion has played in the history of cultures.

The ACLU's Willis said he hoped school district would listen to its attorneys and not implement the policies.

“What we hope for is that cooler heads will prevail and that the district will decide against these policies,” Willis said. “Most of the time schools will listen to their attorneys. However, that is not always the case and we therefore may be required to litigate this case. We have been involved in a fair amount of litigation involving religion in the public schools and have prevailed in every single instance.”