Appeals Court Allows Moment of Silence in Ga. Schools

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Georgia students may continue to start the school day with a 60-second moment of silence, a federal appeals court said last week, ruling that the state-mandated "period of quiet reflection" does not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion.

The third moment-of-silence law to reach a federal appeals court, Georgia's statute is the first to withstand constitutional scrutiny, said Harland Loeb, a lawyer for the Anti-Defamation League's Midwest region.

Also on May 6, a three-judge panel from the same U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, declined to rule on the constitutionality of a policy in Florida's Duval County school district that gives seniors two minutes to make uncensored statements at their high school graduation ceremonies. Some students have used the time to pray.

In the Georgia case, Brian G. Bown, a suburban Atlanta teacher who was fired for not observing a moment of silence in his class, challenged the law as an attempt to sneak prayer into public schools that would force teachers to monitor student prayer.

The three-judge appeals panel, upholding a lower court's decision, said May 6 that the law passes the three-pronged test set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 on church-state issues: It has a clear secular purpose, does not promote or inhibit religion, and does not excessively entangle government and religion.

The 1994 state law was part of a legislative package designed to curtail violent crime among juveniles. It says students may use the minute for "silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day." But it does not authorize student-initiated prayers at school or school events as Mr. Bown contends, the panel held.

Mr. Loeb said the decision "is part of a continuing effort of religious groups to reintroduce prayer and religion in public life."

But Linda Hamrick, a co-founder of the conservative United Parents for Excellence in Education, a Georgia group, said as long as state legislators open their sessions with prayer, students should at least be allowed to observe a moment of silence. "Why is the classroom out of bounds for things that the highest officials in the land do?" asked Ms. Hamrick.

Mr. Bown's lawyer, Steven Leibel, of Atlanta, said he plans to appeal the decision in Bown v. Gwinnett County School District to the Supreme Court.

Moot Point in Florida Case

In the Duval County case, the three-judge panel declined to either uphold or strike down the school system's graduation policy. Instead, the court zeroed in on technical aspects of the case filed by three students and their parents in 1993. A fourth student joined Adler v. Duval County School Board in 1994.

The court said the plaintiffs' request for a temporary injunction to block enforcement of the graduation-speech policy was moot because the students involved in the case have since graduated. Further, the former students cannot collect damages, the court said.

But Gray Thomas, the Jacksonville, Fla., lawyer who represents the students' families, argued that the case still merits review because the graduates have younger siblings in the Duval County schools. He said he may appeal the panel's finding to the full 11th Circuit court.

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Web Resources
  • Read an ACLU Legal Bulletin on the issue of the establishment clause and public schools. Also from the ACLU, read how the fictional "Sybil Rights" answers common questions from students about school prayer and other issues related to religioun and public schools.
  • Letter to Superintendents. This Aug. 10, 1995, statement of principles from U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to school districts around the nation addresses the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted in public schools.
  • Lee v. Weisman. Text of the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared prayer at public-school graduations to be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Wallace v. Jaffree. Text of the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared that public school "moments of silence" for "meditation or voluntary prayer" constitute the establishment of religion and thus violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Engel v. Vitale. This 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision established that an official state prayer for public schools is unconstitutional--even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and if pupils may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited

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