Court Reaffirms Stand on Prayer, Will Rule on Moments of Silence
Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week reaffirmed its earlier rulings that organized, spoken prayer in public schools is unconstitutional, but agreed to consider for the first time the constitutionality of laws calling for "moments of silence" in the schools.
The Court will review an Alabama moment-of-silence law; similar laws are in place in 22 other states.
The Court's actions marked the latest in a series of recent developments involving the school-prayer issue.
Last month, the Senate rejected two pro-posed constitutional amendments that would have cleared the way for organized prayer in public schools. One would have nullified the Supreme Court's initial 1962 prohibition against official sponsorship of religious activities in school. The other would have permitted silent prayer in schools.
Since then, advocates of organized prayer in the schools have turned their attention to legislation that would guarantee the right of student religious groups to meet on school grounds. Last week, the House Education and Labor Committee passed by a so-called "equal-access" measure by a vote of 30 to 3. A similar measure has been reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and could be acted on by the full chamber at any time, according to Congressional staffers.
The Court's announcements involving school prayer last week concern a suit by Ishmael Jaffree, a father of three children in the Mobile, Ala., school system who is challenging the constitutionality of two Alabama laws.
The first law authorized but did not require teachers to lead "willing students" in prayer. It suggested a specific prayer composed by the son of then-Gov. Forrest H. (Fob) James.
Without comment, the Court affirmed a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which declared the law to be in violation of the First Amendment's prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.
The Court's reaffirmation of its stance against organized, spoken prayer in public schools follows its recent decision to allow a Rhode Island town to pay for and display a Christmas nativity scene. Some Court observers had thought that decision might be a sign of the Justices' willingness to "lower" the wall of separation between church and state.
The second Alabama law challenged by Mr. Jaffree gives teachers the authority "to announce that a period of silence not to exceed one minute in duration shall be observed for meditation or voluntary prayer, and during any such period no other activities shall be engaged in." The Court agreed to review the constitutionality of that legislation.
The 11th Circuit Court had ruled that this law amounted to a state-sponsored "advancement of religious activities" and thus also violated the Constitution's establishment clause.
The Court will not hear the case, Wallace v. Jaffree (Case No. 83-812), at least until sometime after October.
It received the case on appeal from the State of Alabama and the Mobile County school board. It consolidated the case with Smith v. Jaffree (No. 83-929), a separate but similar appeal filed by more than 600 parents, teachers, and students who favor the moment-of-silence law.
The Reagan Administration late last year joined the effort to get the Court to review Alabama's moment-of-silence law. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Administration argued that public schools must accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of the students who attend them.
"Moment-of-silence statutes are libertarian in the precise spirit of the Bill of Rights: They accommodate those who believe that prayer should be an integral part of life's activities (including school), and do so in the most neutral and noncoercive spirit possible," the Justice Department wrote.
"Failure to accommodate the religious need of students since  has contributed to the exodus of many religious students, especially Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals, from the public schools, much as the failure to accommodate the distinctive religious needs of Jewish and Roman Catholic students in an earlier era induced them to abandon public schools and form private school systems of their own," it also said in its brief.
Since 1962, when the Court struck down organized school prayer in Engel v. Vitale, 23 states have enacted laws allowing an organized moment of silence for prayer or meditation.
Recently, federal courts have found such laws unconstitutional in New Jersey, Tennessee, and New Mexico, while a similar law in Massachusetts was upheld.
The Court last week refused, without comment, to hear a case, Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County v. Jaffree (No. 83-804) involving another aspect of the school-prayer issue. In this suit, Mr. Jaffree complained that teachers informally--without authority from any state law--led students in prayer. The 11th Circuit Court declared that practice unconstitutional, too, and the Mobile school board asked the Supreme Court to review the decision.
Gary L. Jarmin, legislative director of Christian Voice, a religious lobbying organization active in the school-prayer movement, said the Court's decision to review the Alabama moment-of-silence law was "a step in the right direction."
He said a decision by the Justices upholding the law, in combination with Congressional passage of the equal-access legislation, would "remedy many of the concerns" of prayer advocates.
But he added that his organization will continue its fight on behalf of official approval of vocal prayer in the schools. One possible strategy, he said, would be to press for consideration of another constitutional amendment in 1986 or beyond. Another scenario, he said, would be to urge a Supreme Court reshaped in a second Reagan Administration term to reconsider its opposition to vocal prayer.