Published Online: May 6, 1998

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Sounds of silence

Maybe Alabama's governor should have taken a cue from his state's new moment-of-silence law.

 Gov. Fob James Jr.

Last week, Gov. Fob James Jr. signed into law a bill that mandates that public schools start each day with a moment of silence. The bill was a response to a federal district judge's ruling last year that struck down the state's 1993 law authorizing voluntary student prayer at school events.

But Mr. James, who has voiced his displeasure with the court decision, was caught off guard April 27 when some of his less diplomatic thoughts were captured by local television.

Reportedly, shortly after signing the bill, the Republican governor complained that the new measure "ain't worth the damn paper it's written on." He went on to use an off-color word and to say that lawmakers were "just going through the motions" until Congress acts on school prayer legislation of its own.

Mr. James later apologized for "his use of a slang term," explaining that he made his remarks in a private conversation with Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr., the Republican who sponsored the bill, said Bob Gambacurta, the governor's spokesman. The conversation was picked up by a microphone and fed to television cameras.

Mr. Gambacurta said his boss supports the new law, but was expressing his frustration at the need for such a measure and the U.S. Supreme Court's restrictions on school prayer.

Despite last week's flap, some state lawmakers say the moment-of-silence law may help ease tensions in the state. It requires up to a minute of silent reflection at the beginning of each school day and is patterned after a Georgia moment-of-silence law that was upheld last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The Atlanta-based 11th Circuit covers Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

Pamela Sumners, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said the organization was taking a careful look at the law. The measure may not violate the U.S. Constitution on its face, she said, but "statements of the sponsors show that they expect the moment of silence to be used for prayer."

For the time being, however, the ACLU is not planning a court challenge, she said.

--MARK WALSH & MARY-ELLEN P. DEILY

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