Court Allows Schools to Continue Minute of Silence

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen Dinan

Virginia's law requiring public school students to observe a daily minute of silence in classrooms is constitutional, a divided panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The 2-1 ruling by the Richmond-based court means Virginia public schools will continue to set aside a minute for students to pray, meditate or conduct another silent activity of their choice, as long as it isn't disruptive.

The lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union already has promised to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Virginia's attorney general said he's ready to defend the law.

The two judges ruling in favor of the state wrote that the law is an acceptable balance of competing First Amendment rights: the prohibition against establishing a religion -(spade)what has come to be known as the separation of church and state -(spade)and individuals' right to practice their religion.

"In establishing a minute of silence, during which students may choose to pray or to meditate in a silent and nonthreatening manner, Virginia has introduced at most a minor and nonintrusive accommodation of religion that does not establish religion. By providing this moment of silence, the State makes no endorsement of religion," wrote Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, who was joined in his opinion by Judge Karen Williams.

The state General Assembly, arguing that it would help students collect themselves and reflect on things, voted overwhelmingly last year to require every school to host a minute of silence. Before, the law merely had allowed schools the option. The law took effect during summer school last year, with most schools choosing to hold the minute of silence during morning announcements.

But just before schools reopened in September, a handful of students - with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) - sued, arguing that the law was a backdoor attempt to promote prayer in schools.

First a federal district judge in Alexandria, and now the appeals panel, have rejected that argument and upheld the law - and along the way, both allowed schools to continue to hold the period of silence while the case made its way through the courts.

Other than a few problems in the early days - students being disciplined for walking out to protest the law, for instance - there haven't been many public complaints from school administrators or students. …