ACLU Challenges Virginia's 'Minute of Silence' Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
June 22, 2000 12:00 am

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ALEXANDRIA, VA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a newly enacted state law requiring public schools to begin each day with a minute of silence so that students may “meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity.”

“Every Virginia legislator knows the purpose of this law,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “It is an attempt to put state-sanctioned prayer back in our public schools, and that is both shameful and unconstitutional.”

Lawyers for the ACLU and the Washington, D.C., law firm Crowell & Moring filed papers earlier today in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on behalf of seven public school students and their parents, who claim that the new law violates the First Amendment mandate for separation of church and state.

The lawsuit was filed two days after the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling declaring that public schools cannot let students lead stadium crowds in prayer over the public address system before high school football games.

Willis said the Supreme Court’s decision holds that if a system is designed by the state to promote or encourage student prayer in any form, then that action is unconstitutional.

“This is true for Moment of Silence policies as well as school-sponsored prayer at sporting events or graduation ceremonies,” Willis said. “The Justices clearly indicated that they will scrutinize the history and substance — not just the form — of whatever policy the school is defending.”

“In other words,” he added, “school officials may claim with a nod and a wink that its policy is not coercive, but the Court is not going to wink back.”

Approved by the General Assembly during the 2000 legislative session and later signed by Governor James Gilmore, the minute of silence law will take effect on July 1, 2000, although it would not actually be implemented until the start of the school year in the fall.

Senator Warren E. Barry of Fairfax County sponsored the bill, which originally required teachers to announce aloud to students that a minute of silence “shall be observed for meditation, prayer or reflection.”

Although amended during the session to remove the requirement that the word prayer be used in the daily announcements, the controversial law has already created conflict among state officials.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jo Lynne DeMary issued guidelines last week advising teachers not to mention the word “prayer” when the minute of silence period is announced.

After some legislators complained that omitting the word prayer in the daily announcement undermined the intent of the law, Attorney General Mark Earley declared that schools need not refrain from mentioning prayer in the daily announcement.

In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law allowing a minute of silence in public schools when state officials made it clear that the reason for the law was to circumvent an earlier high court decision banning school-sponsored prayer. The lawsuit filed today claims that the intent of the Virginia law, like Alabama’s, is to promote prayer in public schools.

Lawyers for the students and their parents include Stuart H. Newberger, who heads a team of lawyers from Crowell & Moring, and Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia.

A copy of the complaint is available at http://members.aol.com/acluva or by contacting the ACLU of Virginia.

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