States debate moment of silence for public schools
By The Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio At least a dozen states have debated whether to require a daily moment of silence in public schools in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the decision last October by the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear a challenge to Virginia's law.
"These bills were clearly something that was a popular first response to the crisis in our nation," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "And, after Virginia, we expected we'd see a slew of them."
Gov. Bob Taft signed Ohio's bill yesterday. It puts in writing that the state allows one minute daily for students to reflect, meditate or pray. The state is letting school districts decide whether to make the moment mandatory.
Before last fall, nine states already had laws that required a daily silent minute in schools. Many modeled their laws after Virginia's, which makes the moment mandatory and lists prayer as an option.
The Supreme Court has outlawed mandatory school prayer, but courts have said states may require silent periods as long as students are not forced or encouraged to pray.
Critics argue that such laws still threaten the Constitution's separation of religion and government.
"When educators set aside a time for reflection, that's not just providing the opportunity, that's encouraging prayer," said Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The sponsor of Ohio's bill said students became confused because they didn't know they were allowed to pray silently in school and weren't told they could do so, even though elected leaders prayed publicly after the terrorist attacks.
"It's kind of sending a double-standard message," said state Rep. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont. "Every student across the state should have had that time to think about what happened to us."
Teachers in Ohio and other states already are allowed to set aside silent periods. Some say states should put the permission into law, to ease teachers' fears of violating state and federal constitutions.
Ohio lawmakers debated for seven months whether to include "pray" and require the silent period. Local-control advocates pushed for the decision to be made by school boards.
Lawmakers in other states, including South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Indiana, New Mexico, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Virginia and Missouri, haggled over the same issues.
In Oklahoma, state Rep. Russ Roach, a Democrat from Tulsa, said lawmakers can't agree on the wording in his bill, including whether "religion" and "prayer" should appear.
"I don't like mandating it," Roach said. "Unfortunately, a lot of our gung-ho members want just that."
Supporters of the measures argue that schoolchildren can use the time to do anything they wish including staring out the window as long as they are quiet.
"It's merely an opportunity for the individual to exercise his or her own freedom of conscience," said Stephen M. Crampton, chief counsel for the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy in Mississippi. "It's not about forcing predisposed views about religion down people's throats."
The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, does not oppose the silent periods as long as the federal government doesn't mandate them, it's a true minute and a teacher's role is passive.
Karen Darner, an elementary schoolteacher and a Virginia House delegate, said many of her fellow teachers see the minute as just one more thing teachers must include in their already full days.
"It's the longest 60 seconds of the day," said Darner, a Democrat from Arlington. "But we do it because the law says we have to."
Katie Marco, a senior at Cuyahoga Falls High School in northeast Ohio, said she would welcome a daily minute where she could ask God to help her get through her day.
"It's a nice idea, but I think kids wouldn't respect that time for everyone," said Marco, 18, a Methodist who often says a silent prayer before exams.
In Fremont, Sherry Sprouse's children ages 14, 16 and 25 attend the Church of Christ three times a week. Sprouse believes that they, as well as others who might not be as exposed to religion at home, would benefit from even one more minute each day to pray.
"Kids would have time to reflect on how lucky we are and how many blessings we have on the earth," she said. "A lot of these kids do not know God at all. It's kind of a way to have some discipline back into their lives."
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