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Moment of Silence Debate in Georgia Prompts a Mixed Reaction Among Jews

In the wake of a suburban Atlanta teacher’s protest of a new school prayer law in Georgia, some Jewish organizations are preparing to join an expected legal challenge to the 3-month-old statute.

Brian Bown, a 41-year-old social studies teacher, refused to observe a 60-second period of "quiet reflection" last week and instead continued to teach his class.

Officials at South Gwinnett High School suspended Bown with pay after he refused again the next day to observe the moment of silence and then he left school grounds.

An administrative hearing is scheduled of next week to decide Bown’s fate at the school.

The latest flap over school prayer has the Jewish community lining up along customary church-state battle lines.

The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League are poised to fight the statute, while some in the Orthodox community are calling the perceived threat to the division between church and state "silly."

Many of the groups traditionally opposed to school prayer, however, are not supporting the teacher’s actions per se, but rather opposing the Georgia statute itself.

"We have never endorsed a stature that an individual teacher should disregard school board regulations," said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the AJCongress.

"That could lead to anarchy in the schools," he said.

Pelavin expressed concern that if teachers opposed to school prayer and moments of silence violate local legislation, then the same thing could happen with teachers who support school prayer.

Instead of siding with the teacher, Pelavin said, AJCongress "expects at an appropriate time to join in a challenge of the statute."

There is currently no legal challenge to the Georgia law, but observers expect the issue to be aired in court.

LEGISLATURE’S INTENT AT ISSUE

At issue is the Georgia legislature’s intent when it enacted the law requiring a minute of silence in the public schools.

"A pure moment of silence does not constitute a constitutional problem," said Samuel Rabinove, legal director of AJCommittee.

"But this is an attempt to get prayer into the public schools through the back door and it’s happening around the country," Rabinove said.

Jess Hordes, Washington director of the ADL, agreed, saying such moments of silence "have been used as thinly veiled attempts to promote prayer in schools."

The ADL, along with a coalition of local Georgia organizations, is studing the case to determine what specific sourses of action to take, Hordes said.

But not all in the Jewish community agree with the assessment that a moment of silence represents a threat.

"Those who argue that a moment of silence in the schools poses a threat are silly," said David Zwiebel, director of governmental affairs and general counsel of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group.

"This turns what is effectively an empty gesture into an issue of enormous importance," Zwiebel said.

While favoring certain types of non-denominational and voluntary school prayer, Agudat has remained on the sidelines of the debate over a moment of silence, Zwiebel said.

Unlike many other school prayer initiatives spearheaded by fundamentalist Christians, the Georgia law has its roots in an effort to motivate students, according to David Scott, the Georgia lawmaker who introduced the legislation.

Scott told his colleagues in the state Senate that he favored the moment of silence as a time of reflection to set an appropriate mood for learning.

The Supreme Court has sought to distinguish between a moment of silence and prayer in schools.

But in a legal challenge to the Georgia law, opponents of the measure say they would try to show that despite Scott’s intentions, the Georgia legislature clearly tried to use the moment of silence to skirt the constitutional difficulties of enacting a broader prayer statute.

Four states — Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia — have enacted statutes allowing school prayer. Courts are now in the process of hearing challenges to all four state laws.

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