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Federal Judge Hears Challenge To 'Moment-of-Silence' Law

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Newark--The New Jersey Legislature, in enacting a "moment-of-silence" law for public-school students last year, said the law called for just that--a minute of quiet contemplation and introspection to begin the school day.

But this month in the U.S. District Court here, the American Civil Liberties Union (a.c.l.u.) paraded a score of witnesses before Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise who testified that they believed the act was a guise to return prayer to the schools "through the back door."

"It will lead to bowing heads, closing eyes, and being led in prayer by a teacher," said Langdon Gilkey, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago. "Silence is very much a part of the paraphernalia of religion."

Unlike previous federal and state initiatives to legislate a moment of silence in schools, the New Jersey law makes no reference to prayer, and both proponents and opponents say it presents novel constitutional issues. The legislature overrode the veto of Gov. Thomas H. Kean to enact the law last December, but its implementation was blocked on Jan. 10 by Judge Debevoise on a motion by the a.c.l.u.

After four days of hearings, Judge Debevoise promised a final decision by mid-October.

Because New Jersey's constitution gives legislators immunity from testifying about their official actions, they could not be questioned on their motivation in enacting the law during the hearings. But the a.c.l.u. presented several witnesses who quoted the bill's sponsors as saying they wanted to re-turn prayer to the schools.

Richard Altman, an a.c.l.u. attorney from Trenton who represented the plaintiffs, Jeffrey May, a teacher in the Edison school system, and a handful of parents and students, called several educators to testify that the law has little or no educational value.

"It's bad education and it's bad religion," said Peter J. Kuriloff, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. As an educational tool, he said, the law is "at best marginal, at worst harmful."

Mr. Kuriloff said the silence would provoke anxiety in younger children, invite disruption among junior-high-school students, and intimidate weaker individuals attending high school. Both Mr. Gilkey and Mr. Kuriloff conceded under cross-examination that the law did not say anything about prayer, but they said they had no doubt that at least some students and teachers would use the time to pray.

The a.c.l.u. also called two students to testify on why they believed the law was a violation of their constitutional rights, and two school superintendents--Paul Houston of Princeton and Paul A. Shelly of Paramus--who said they thought the law was designed to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 ban on prayer in public schools.

Two ministers who oppose the law, the Rev. George D. Younger, a chief executive officer of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, and the Rev. Dudley E. Safarty of the State Council of Churches, also testified, as did representatives of the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Education Association.

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N.J. Moment-of-Silence Law

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The legislature, represented by Special Counsel William W. Robertson, a former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, called as its main witness Thomas C. Thompson, a Las Cruces, N.M., psychologist, who presented the only known study on students' reactions to a moment of silence.

Moment of Silence

Mr. Thompson, who last year studied the effects of a similar state law on 144 New Mexico schoolchildren, testified that more than half the children liked having the moment of silence before they began their school day. He said he found no perception among students at any grade level that the moment of silence was in any way a religious activity.

Under cross-examination, Mr. Thompson conceded that neither emotionally disturbed nor hyperac3tive children--students that other witnesses said would be made anxious by the silence--were included in the study.

He also said he did not make any attempt to determine whether the religious beliefs of the students affected their perceptions of the law.

Mr. Thompson said he was commissioned to make the study in January 1982 by the New Mexico Legislature, which was then defending its own moment-of-silence law in federal court. That law, which included a reference to prayer, was declared unconstitutional in February.

Mr. Thompson also conceded that the law caused some consternation in his own family. He said his 16-year-old son told him the law violated his constitutional rights, his 14-year-old daughter said she would use the moment to pray, and his 10-year-old daughter asked permission to use the time to chant.

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