Does God Belong in Public Schools?

By Kent Greenawalt | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 4
Moments of Silence

MANY STATES and school districts have instituted moments of silence to replace oral prayer to begin the school day.1 Students are free to use their moment of silence to pray, meditate, reflect on the day ahead, or remember last night's party. As we shall see, the Supreme Court has indicated by a kind of indirection that standard moment-of-silence laws are constitutional, but that does not settle whether observing a moment of silence is really consistent with the Supreme Court's approach to oral classroom prayer. Of course, many officials may not care about consistency— they may regard Engel and Schempp as misguided, or be responding to the outrage of religious parents; and they may be willing to do whatever they can to ameliorate the ban on oral prayer. But other officials who accept the underlying rationales behind that ban may wish to act in accord with it.

A moment of silence impinges less on dissenters than does oral prayer. In this case, no students need participate in an offensive practice, or listen to words that offend their conscience, or risk peer disapproval by asking to be excused. Virtually all religious traditions accept silent prayer and meditation.2 Insofar as a moment of silence encourages prayer, it achieves nonpreference among religions more fully than can any oral prayer. Were silence freely chosen over oral prayer, that might give slight support to religious groups that accord silence great significance, such as the Society of Friends;3 but for anyone who realizes that oral prayer is “out,” silence appears not to involve such a preference.

As to whether a moment of silence encourages or favors prayer at all, the answer is more subtle. Certainly one can pray more easily during a moment of silence than during math instruction; in this minimal sense, silence encourages prayer. Further, everyone understands that when people are asked to pause for a moment of silence, prayer is an appropriate activity.4 Whether a moment of silence somehow intrinsically encourages or favors prayer depends on the circumstances. If a host says be

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