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N.J. 'Period of Silence' Halted by Federal Judge

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Last week, less than a month after New Jersey's new "period-of-silence" law went into effect, a federal district judge ordered the state's schools to stop the practice of beginning each day with the mandatory quiet minute. The order was to remain in effect until a hearing on the law's constitutionality could be held. A number of states currently have laws providing for some form of school prayer, meditation, or a "moment of silence." Several are also the objects of litigation. (See related story on this page.)

Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise issued the order in response to a suit challenging the law, filed last Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (aclu).

The judge's order said, in part: "[The law] is unconstitutional on its face and as applied in that it violates the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and that immediate and irreparable injury will result to plaintiffs pending a hearing on an application for preliminary injunction."

Without Religious Intent

Jeffrey E. Fogel, executive director of the New Jersey aclu, said that the order puts the burden on the state legislature to show that the period-of-silence law was passed completely without religious intent, and that documentation already provided by plaintiffs in the case "clearly indicates legislative motivation."

The complaint contained several examples of testimony that the civil-liberties group argued demonstrated religious motivation on the part of legislators, Mr. Fogel said.

The law was enacted Dec. 16 by a legislative override of Gov. Thomas H. Kean's veto of the bill. It states:

"Principals and teachers in each public elementary and secondary school of each school district in this state shall permit students to observe a one-minute period of silence to be used solely at the discretion of the individual student, before the opening exercises of each school day for quiet and private contemplation or introspection."

Charging that the law violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the aclu is representing a number of parents and school-age children, as well as Jeffrey May, a teacher in the Edison School District in Middlesex County who had been threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to comply with the law, Mr. Fogel said.

The Edison school board has decided to defer any disciplinary action against Mr. May until a decision is reached on the law.

The defendants in the case are Saul Cooperman, who is New Jersey's Commissioner of Education, the state education department, and the school boards of Old Bridge and Edison.

When the bill became law, Mr. Cooperman announced that the department of education would not offer any advice to districts on the implications of the law, but would simply provide the districts with copies of it.

The aclu, disturbed by reports following the court order that the period of silence was still being observed in some school districts, asked the commissioner to inform the districts of the judge's decision in a comprehensive way.

The education department subsequently sent copies of the restraining order to each school district.

Because the Governor vetoed the bill on Dec. 2, calling it unconstitutional, the state attorney general will not defend the law this week. Instead, counsel for the state legislature will handle the case.

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