Georgia's moment-of-silence law stirs noisy debate about school prayer

August 28, 1994|By New York Times News Service

ATLANTA -- Not long ago, prayer in school might have seemed like an issue already put to rest by the courts.

But a suburban Atlanta teacher's refusal last week to observe a new state law requiring a brief period of "quiet reflection" was a reminder that the question is very much alive and that voluntary school prayer has a constituency that extends far beyond the easily pigeonholed agenda of the religious right.

"This is an issue that's not going to go away," said Robert Peck, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"You're going to see more courts coming to different conclusions, and eventually the Supreme Court will have to take a case and announce a national rule."

A year after a Mississippi principal became a local hero when he was dismissed for allowing students to begin the day by reading prayers over his school's public-address system, Brian Bown last week set off his own furor at South Gwinnett High School in the Atlanta suburb of Snellville, Ga.

Suspended with pay

Mr. Bown, 41, a social studies teacher, was suspended with pay for lecturing through the state-mandated period of silence on Monday, then stalking out of the school on Tuesday after telling the principal that he would not preside over such a period.

A federal judge declined Friday to reinstate him, and Mr. Bown faces a school board hearing Sept. 6 on whether he should be discharged.

In the last year, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia have all passed measures authorizing student-initiated, student-led prayers. The states say those laws conform with a 1992 Supreme Court ruling and a subsequent decision in another case by a U.S. appeals court in Texas, allowing some forms of voluntary, student-initiated prayer.

But all those statutes are being contested in the courts.

The Georgia approach

Georgia took a different tack. Its requirement for a special period, which took effect this summer, mandates only "a brief period of quiet reflection for not more than 60 seconds" at the opening of the school day.

The law is the work not of the religious right but of a black state senator concerned with the rising tide of violence.

"After every shooting, after every kid is killed, what do they do?" the senator, David Scott, said in an interview.

"They get to their school, and they have a quiet moment of reflection. Now surely if it is good to do that after the killing, surely to incorporate a silent moment of reflection at the beginning of the day would go a long way in calming down, toning down, setting a mood."

The law states that the period of reflection "is not intended to be and shall not be conducted as a religious service or exercise."

But even those who do not agree with Mr. Bown's assertion that "the legislature very clearly intended to make it a moment of prayer" acknowledge that entirely divorcing religion from the period of reflection is impossible.

Indeed, proponents of the law say that although some students will use the time to think about schoolwork, some to clear their heads and some to stare blankly into space, others will use it to pray.

At South Gwinnett High, Josh Watson, a 17-year-old junior, said he himself used the time to pray. Ryan Dollar, a 17-year-old senior, said he just thought about the day ahead and tried to get focused.

The law's advocates say it reflects what they perceive as the wishes of most Americans: for some format that allows for, but does not mandate, private prayer.

"This is not a mandate for school prayer; it's a state saying, 'Beforeyou start the school day, think for 60 seconds,' " said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice. "To have a constitutional crisis over a moment of reflection shows the absurdity of how far the separation-of-church-and-state arguments are starting to go."

But Mr. Bown's lawyers, trying to overturn the law, will argue in court that although Mr. Scott's original intentions may not have been entirely religious, the debate in the state legislature clearly reflected a desire to return prayer to the schools.

In reality, critics say, the law is resulting in classrooms where teachers close their eyes and bow their heads and where some form of prayer is expected.

Steven Leibel, one of Mr. Bown's lawyers, said one argument offered by legislators for a 60-second period of silence was that it takes only 20 to 30 seconds to recite the Lord's Prayer.

"It's my opinion that when you look at what happened in the legislature, this is clearly about prayer," Mr. Bown said. "And when they called it a 'period of quiet reflection,' they were just saying, 'Let's try this and see if this works.' "

Mr. Peck, the legislative counsel for the ACLU, said that if the law genuinely provided only a moment of silence, then it was constitutional. But if it is a thinly veiled attempt to promote prayer, he said, it is not.

"I think you have to look at the intent," Mr. Peck said, "and you haveto look at the pattern and practice of how it's being implemented. And since it just began last week, it's probably somewhat early to figure that out."

Teachers, too, are split. Barbara McCay, chairwoman of South Gwinnett's social studies program, describes the new period of silence as a "good, reflective time."

"This law doesn't seem to inject religion into the schools," she said.

Warren Southerland, who teaches gifted students at the school, sees it differently. "I think it is a way for fundamentalist Christians to get religion into the schools through the back door," he said.

Critics of the law contend that since there is nothing that now prohibits an individual student from praying privately, there is no need for a required period of silence. But many also say that depending on court findings as to how the law is observed and its legislative history, it could very well pass constitutional muster.

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