Supreme Court Gives Blessing to `Moment of Silence' Laws / but Upholds School Prayer Ban
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 unconstitutional.
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 school.
""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 prayer.''
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 public school.
""We asked the court to uphold the principle that "moment of silence' is permissible,'' Montgomery said. ""As we see it, it is a victory.''
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 pastcouple generations.''
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. …