A.C.L.U. To Challenge Law Requiring Meditation in Schools
A bill that requires Tennessee's public schools to set aside one minute at the beginning of the school day for "meditation, or prayer, or personal beliefs" has been signed into law by Gov. Lamar Alexander, but the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) of Tennessee intends to file suit shortly on the grounds that the law is in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Although silent meditation is a fairly common practice in public schools across the nation, Julie Steiner, executive director of the Tennessee aclu, said that to the best of her knowledge, only Massachusetts has a similar statewide requirement.
The measure, passed by the Tennessee legislature on April 7 with a wide margin of support, went into effect on April 29. The following week, Robert L. McElrath, state commissioner of education, sent copies of the legislation and of an opinion by the state attorney general on the bill to district officials across the state.
Part of the attorney general's opinion, according to the state education department, was intended to provide some guidelines for school officials as they put the measure into effect.
Total Silence Advised
In the opinion, school officials and teachers are advised to maintain total silence during the meditation period and to avoid completely the use of any religious terms, such as "amen." The opinion also said that "the quiet periods must neither be intended nor identified as a religious service, lest the impressionable student misconceive the appropriate roles of church and state."
If students ask about the purpose of the period of silence, teachers are told to reply that it is required by state law. If the students seek further information, teachers are advised to refer them to their parents or other family members.
The opinion of the attorney general, William M. Leech Jr., also affected the language in the legislation that was passed, according to the state education department. The bill was submitted to Mr. Leech by legislators before it was voted on, and he advised that it would not withstand a constitutional test as it was originally written.
The problem, according to the attorney general's opinion, lay in the language, which required that the period of time be set aside for "meditation and prayer and personal beliefs." The attorney general suggested that the bill would withstand a constitutional challenge if it were modified to read "meditation or prayer or personal beliefs."
'Moment of Meditation'
His opinion was based in part on a court ruling in a 1976 Massachusetts case, Gaines v. Anderson, in which a federal district judge upheld a similar law. The Tennessee law, as enacted, is similar to the Massachusetts measure. The latter law, according to a spokesman for the Massachusetts chapter of the aclu, calls for a "moment of meditation" and does not mention prayer.
The aclu, however, takes the position that the Massachusetts precedent notwithstanding, the bill is "unconstitutional on the face of it," according to Ms. Steiner. The earlier case, she said, is "something we're going to have to deal with."
The language, however, is not the only ground on which the measure can be chal-lenged, Ms. Steiner noted. The legislature's intention in passing the legislation, she said, will also figure in any court challenge.
Comments made by many legislators make it clear that the purpose of the law is to foster prayer in the schools, said Ms. Steiner. "The legislators are open about this."
While the legislature was considering the bill, she said, several amendments that might have eliminated potential conflicts were voted down; an amendment to delete the word "prayer" was defeated, as was one that would have changed "prayer" to "silent prayer."
If the first proposed change had passed, she said, the law would have been far less likely to end up in court, since the U.S. Supreme Court previously found "meditation" in the public schools acceptable under the Constitution.
Ms. Steiner said that the aclu had received calls from concerned citizens, some of whom were ministers and rabbis. "People are upset about it," she said. "What you hear if you talk to some religious people is that they don't want prayer in the schools because they don't want their prayer secularized."
A spokesman for the Tennessee Education Association said the teachers' organization had generally remained neutral about the bill, although it had requested that the word "and" be changed to "or," as advised by the attorney general.
It is still uncertain exactly when and in which court the suit will be filed, Ms. Steiner said. Tentatively, she said, the civil-liberties group plans to file suit in the federal district court in Nashville, the state capital. Five lawyers have volunteered to work on the case for the aclu