WASHINGTON (UPI) - The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to lift its
23-year ban on state-sponsored prayer in public schools, but gave its
blessing to state laws calling for a simple ""moment of silence''
when students may pray quietly.
In the first high court test of such laws, the justices, on a 6-3
vote, upheld a lower court ruling that an Alabama law mandating a
moment of silence for meditiation or voluntary prayer is
The high court, however, made an important distinction between a
simple moment of silence and the Alabama law, which was challenged by
a man who objected to his children's being exposed to prayer at
""The legislative intent (of Alabama's law) 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 school day,'' Justice
John Paul Stevens said for the court.
A student's right to pray silently if he wishes is ""already
protected,'' Stevens said, but the unconstitutional Alabama law ""was
enacted to convey a message of state endorsement and promotion of
In a concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, ""The
moment of silence statutes of many states should satisfy the ...
standard we have applied.
""The court holds only that Alabama has intentionally crossed the
line between creating a quiet moment during which those so inclined
may pray, and affirmatively endorsing the particular religious
practice of prayer.''
About half the states have laws calling for a moment of silence
for prayer, meditation or reflection, but how Tuesday's ruling
affects them depends on how each is worded.
Both sides in the dispute - a top church-state controversy before
the court this term - found something to cheer about in the ruling.
Rex Lee, former U.S. solicitor general whose office argued in
support of the law for the Reagan administration, said the decision
""has something in it for everyone.''
Based on the ruling, Lee said, states can ""conclude that a moment
of silence, which school children can devote to meditation, prayer or
nothing at all, is wise within the proper sphere of choice.''
Forest Montgomery, lawyer for the National Association of
Evangelicals, said the court had ""no maneuvering room'' because the
record showed the Alabama legislature was trying to return prayer to
""We asked the court to uphold the principle that "moment of
silence' is permissible,'' Montgomery said. ""As we see it, it is a
Charles Sims of the American Civil Liberties Union also saw the
decision as a victory and an ""extremely important reaffirmation of
the path the court's been on in church-state matters for the
In his opinion, Stevens said the Alabama law was designed to
promote religion, noting a 1978 version referred only to a moment of
silence for ""meditation,'' while the amended version before the
court added the words, ""or voluntary prayer.''
""The addition of "or voluntary prayer' indicates that the state
intended to characterize prayer as a favored practice,'' he said.
""Such an endorsement is not consistent with the established
principle that the government must pursue a course of complete
neutrality toward religion. …