Virginia student takes stand against silence

Sunday, November 12, 2000

When his teacher calls for a moment of silence every morning, Jordan
Kupersmith gets up and leaves the room.

What does Jordan, a high school student in Loudoun County, Va., have against

This week I had a chance to ask him at a community meeting called to discuss
the controversy.

It's not the silence that bothers him, he explained, but the intent behind
it. He's convinced that when Virginia legislators passed a law mandating a daily
minute of silence in classrooms, their primary purpose was to promote

Jordan objects on grounds of conscience to participating in what he considers
a religious activity in a public school.

This summer Jordan and seven other students filed suit challenging the
constitutionality of the “minute of silence.” Last week a federal judge upheld
the law, ruling that it had a secular purpose that doesn't advance or inhibit

Jordan tells me that he and his fellow students will appeal the decision.

One of the core issues here is the purpose of the law. The legislative act
itself simply requires a minute of silence during which students may “meditate,
pray or engage in any other silent activity.” But the law's opponents claim that
legislators intended to encourage prayer. Besides, they argue, even mentioning
prayer in the law is unconstitutional.

The judge dismissed these arguments, saying that “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 quietly.”

If this case eventually goes to the Supreme Court, who wins?

Jordan is counting on a 1985 Supreme Court decision striking down an Alabama
“moment of silence” law on the grounds that the legislative history of the act
proved that Alabama lawmakers clearly wanted to promote prayer in schools.

This time around, however, it appears doubtful that the court will strike
down the Virginia law. Proving that the legislature intended to encourage prayer
will be a difficult task since the law's sponsors have been careful to
articulate secular purposes for the minute of silence.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the case, Jordan and his friends will
continue to leave the room during the silence. At first, school officials
weren't sure how to respond to this form of civil disobedience. Jordan even
received detention for leaving the classroom without permission.

But now administrators accommodate the protesters, allowing them to step out
of class during the minute of silence. That's the right thing to do. In the
spirit of the First Amendment, school officials should do what they can to
respect claims of conscience.

You may or may not agree with the students about this law. But it's hard not
to admire their willingness to stand up for their convictions. That's part of
what it means to be a citizen in this extraordinary place we call America.

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