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A Moment of Silence, or Prayer?

Moments of silence have proliferated in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

One week to the minute after the initial attack in New York, White House officials observed a moment of silence. On Monday, the New York Stock Exchange observed two minutes of silence. Even in the midst of covering Sept. 11’s breaking news, Dan Rather called for a moment of pause.

Minutes after the attacks, President Bush called for “a moment of silence.” But a few hours later he summoned “a prayer for the victims and their families.”

While mourning hearts the world over no doubt heard both of Bush’s pleas, the difference between the two has strained the eyes of the law.

Early last year, Virginia’s General Assembly approved a law that required public schools to offer one minute of silence for students to “meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity.”

The ACLU challenged the law, arguing it “offends the fundamental constitutional guarantee that government must remain wholly neutral in matters of religion.”

On Oct. 30, 2000, a federal court rejected the ACLU’s claims, and earlier this year the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

“In establishing a minute of silence, … Virginia has introduced at most a minor and nonintrusive accommodation of religion that does not establish religion,” wrote Judge Paul V. Niemeyer in his majority opinion.

Judge Robert B. King dissented, stating: “The statute’s true aim is clear: to encourage students to pray.”

But the battle continued, as the ACLU argued on Aug. 31 in an emergency court filing before the Supreme Court to halt enforcement of the minute of silence, according to Associated Press.

On Sept. 12, one day after the attacks on New York and Washington, Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist found the Virginia law to have “a clear secular purpose, namely, to provide a moment for quiet reflection.” The law will thus be enforced.

One landmark case involving a “moment of silence” is Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), a Supreme Court case that originated in Alabama.

The case revolved around an Alabama statute that morphed from “a period of silence … for mediation” in 1978, to “a period of silence … for meditation or voluntary prayer” in 1981. It then authorized teachers to “lead willing students in prayer” in 1982. The 1982 statute also provided a prayer which teachers could use.

The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the ruling of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found Alabama’s statute regarding “meditation or voluntary prayer” unconstitutional.

In that decision, concurring Justice Lewis F. Powell offered the opinion, in agreement with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that “some moment-of-silence statutes may be constitutional.”

So moments of silence have been a battleground. And they continue to be.

A brochure from the Freedom from Religion Foundation asks, “What’s Wrong with a Moment of Silence?”

“Obviously, the impetus for ‘moments of silence or meditation’ is to circumvent the rulings against religion in schools,” read the brochure.

American Atheist, a newsletter, claimed governmental bodies try “to defend an opening prayer to official business by disingenuously maintaining that it really isn’t a prayer at all, but a rhetorical device to create a moment of dignity and solemnity.”

And Barbara A. Simon, writing for the Institute for First Amendment Studies, called moments of silence a “ploy” to “promote state-sponsored prayer in our public schools.”

But moments of silence certainly have supporters as well. In 1995, Time magazine reported that Colin Powell supported a moment of silence in public schools.

There’s also a grassroots movement called the Natural Prayer Project (NPP), which champions “a voluntary moment of silence” in classrooms. The NPP obviously favors prayer of some sort, and is indeed using “moments of silence” toward that end.

Not only did President Bush move from calling for “a moment of silence” to “a prayer” on Sept. 11, but he proclaimed Sept. 14 a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of the Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001.” In so doing, he continued the tradition of calling the nation to prayer in times of crisis.

Confusion surrounds the distinction between moments of silence and moments of prayer in the public square.

More moments of each no doubt await us. The question is, will they change us?

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.