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Court Invalidates N.J. 'Silence' Law That Omits Prayer

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A 1982 law mandating a daily "moment of silence" in New Jersey schools violates the constitutional separation of church and state, even though it makes no explicit reference to school prayer, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The statute, which required a period of "quiet and private contemplation or introspection" at the start of each school day, was intended to promote religion and to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on state-sanctioned religious observances, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in a 2-to-1 decision.

Sources in the state legislature said late last week that the case is unlikely to be appealed further, although a final decision had not been made.

New Jersey is one of five states where moment-of-silence laws have been declared unconstitutional by federal courts. But the statutes struck down in Tennessee (1982), New Mexico (1983), West Virginia (1985), and Alabama (1985) differ in that each cites silent "prayer" as an objective.

In the New Jersey case, May v. Cooperman, the law's legislative history--including statements made by its sponsors and supporters before enactment--was sufficient to prove its lack of a secular purpose, the appellate court ruled. The decision upheld an October 1983 opinion by U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise.

Impact Assessed

Jeffrey May, a high-school science teacher who brought the lawsuit, predicted that the decision would put other state legislatures on notice "that they can't just hide behind a 'moment of silence' that's really to force students into a religious observance."

Supporters of the law made no claims that it had any educational purpose, Mr. May charged, until he and a group of students and parents, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued to overturn the moment-of-silence requirement.

Mr. May said he refused to comply with the law, enacted over the veto of Gov. Thomas Kean, because "it violated the constitutional rights of my students." As a result, Mr. May was suspended from his teaching job in Madison Township for one day, he said.

Assemblyman Jimmy Zangari, the act's principal sponsor, called the court's decision "ludicrous" because it interpreted his motives as religious. "How can they say that?" he asked. "Who are these two judges [to overrule] something 95 legislators voted for?"

Mr. Zangari, a Democrat who represents Newark and Irvington, conceded that he had also sponsored bills mandating "a three-minute period of prayer" and daily "scripture readings" in the classroom, but said he withdrew them after being told that they conflicted with Supreme Court rulings.

He maintained that the only purpose of the mandatory moment of silence was "to afford children an opportunity to be calm and tranquil ... to reflect on the activities of the day. Children can be disruptive."

Appeal Unlikely

"I think the decision should be appealed," Mr. Zangari added. "There's no doubt in my mind that it will eventually be declared constitutional after President Reagan [makes more nominations] to the Supreme Court. We all know we're biding time."

But Charles Hardwick, the Republican speaker-elect of the General Assembly, has said he opposes an appeal. According to a spokesman for Mr. Hardwick, a final decision was expected to be announced this week.

If House leaders decline to challenge the ruling, Mr. Zangari said, he will seek a referendum on the moment-of-silence issue "to let the people decide in the state of New Jersey."

"I can guarantee it will pass overwhelmingly," he added.

Whether or not the prophecy proves accurate, voters' sentiments historically have failed to influence the federal courts on constitutional issues. West Virginia's moment-of-silence law, for example, the result of a ballot initiative, was struck down last year.

Districts Not Complying

For the past two years, while the legislature was appealing the district court's ruling, the state education department has tried to force errant districts to comply with it. The department has now asked the state attorney general to initiate appropriate legal action against the Woodbury, Pennsville and Sayreville school districts, which continue to require observance of a daily moment of silence.

In 1984, a New Jersey judge allowed Woodbury officials to continue a 22-year-old policy of requiring the daily period of "contemplation" pending the outcome of May v. Cooperman and Wallace v. Jaffree, the Alabama moment-of-silence case decided last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 6-to-3 ruling, the High Court said that Alabama's statute went beyond the guarantee of students' right to voluntary prayer and became an intrusion on religious liberty. In that decision, while clarifying the Court's earlier standards for determining whether a law violates the First Amendment's ban on the establishment of religion by the state, the Justices noted the significance of legislative intent.

"The crucial question," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee to the Court, "is whether the state has conveyed or attempted to convey the message that children should use the moment of silence for prayer. This question cannot be answered in the abstract, but instead requires courts to examine the history, language, and administration of a particular statute to determine whether it operates as an endorsement of religion."

In the New Jersey case, Mr. May said, "I think it was very clear what the purpose of the law was. If it was for an educational purpose, why legislate it? Any teacher can have a minute of silence anytime he or she wants to."

Recently, students at Edison High School in Edison Township, where Mr. May now teaches, observed a moment of silence for the 256 passengers and crew members who died in the crash of a U.S. Army transport plane near Gander, Newfoundland. "That's an educational purpose," he said. "I don't object to that. I'm a reasonable person."

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