U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Strike Down Virginia's "Minute of Silence" Law

August 31, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–Acting on behalf of seven public school students and their parents, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state’s mandatory “minute of silence” law, saying it violates the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

The law — which requires every public school to set aside 60 seconds each day for students to engage in “meditation, prayer or other silent activity”– was passed during the 2000 session of the Virginia General Assembly and took effect on July 1 of the same year.

“”From the bill’s original wording, which required teachers to announce to students that it is time to pray or meditate, to the sponsor’s relentless fight to keep the word “”prayer”” in the bill when some other legislators wanted it out, this law has been about putting state-sponsored religion back in public schools,”” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis

Today’s legal action not only asks the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that Virginia’s minute of silence law is unconstitutional, but also asks for the court to issue an immediate injunction to stop the continued implementation of the law before the start of the school year.

“”The minute of silence law is especially unfair for students whose religion does not allow for them to pray in public or whose prayer practices require an environment not available in a school setting,”” Willis said. “”In this regard, the tendency of the law is to favor majority religions over minority religions, which is strictly forbidden by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.””

The ACLU and attorneys with the Washington, D.C. law firm Crowell & Moring have argued that the purpose of the law is the state’s promotion of government-sanctioned religious practices in public school. In addition, the law violates the constitutional requirement that government be neutral toward religion because it labels prayer as a favored practice in school.

Although the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a nearly identical Alabama minute of silence law in the early 1980s, both the U.S. District Court in Alexandria and the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond have upheld the Virginia version. However, the Fourth Circuit’s decision last month came on a split 2-1 vote with a strongly worded dissent.

“”From the beginning, we expected this important case to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court,”” said lead attorney Stuart H. Newberger of Crowell & Moring. “”The issue, as it now stands, is legally intolerable. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals says the Virginia law is constitutional, yet the Supreme Court says the same Alabama law is unconstitutional. It is time to resolve this matter once and for all.””

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