Virginia Senate OKs Schools' Moment of Silence

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
February 1, 2000 12:00 am

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RICHMOND, VA –The Virginia Senate has voted 28 to 11 to approve a measure requiring the state’s public schools to observe a minute of silence for meditation, prayer, or reflection at the beginning of every school day, the Washington Post reported. The bill will now go to the House, where supporters and opponents say it is likely to pass.

According to the Post, social and religious conservatives said that the legislation would instill values in young people and reduce violence in schools. Many civil libertarians argued that the measure crosses the constitutional line dividing church and state.

Sen. Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pennsylvania) called the moment of silence “a very small measure to address a very large problem.” “Prayer is not a bad word in my vocabulary,” he said.

But Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said the measure would violate the rights of students, especially those whose religions do not call for prayer. He cited a case in which a Jewish student was tormented by his classmates for refusing to pray during a moment of silence. “If you want a government that’s dominated by religious people, you might want to try living in Iran for a few years,” Saslaw said.

Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, said lawmakers are “at the very least placing Virginia law right on the line of separation of church and state or they are crossing it . . . the state is playing with fire here.”

Virginia’s law currently allows school boards to impose a moment of silence but does not call on teachers to announce the purpose of the silence.

About half the states have some version of a moment of silence law. In the past six months, a number of states around the country have considered implementing religious measures — including posting the Ten Commandments — in response to the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Alabama law calling for a moment of silence in public schools violated the principle that government must be neutral toward religion. The justices said the history of that law made it clear that it was designed to encourage students to pray.

However, the ruling left open the possibility that a law that was not designed topromote religion could be constitutional.

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