Supreme Court Staying Mum on Silent Moments in Schools

A key church-state issue remains unresolved after the Supreme Court refused to hear a case on moments of silence in public schools.

The court on Monday declined to hear a challenge to a Virginia law mandating a moment of silence in public schools.

Jewish activists who follow the issue cautioned against reading too much into the decision, however, saying the Supreme Court could have declined to hear the case for any number of reasons.

In another religion-related case Monday, the Supreme Court also refused to hear the case of an employee who was fired after giving Bibles to co-workers and praying with them, a practice known as “witnessing.”

The employee, a born-again Christian, claimed he was harassed because of his religion. His employer, however, cited concerns that the company could be sued by other employees for tolerating a religiously hostile work environment.

Jewish activists considered the moment of silence case more significant.

A federal appeals court had upheld Virginia’s moment of silence law in July, ruling that it does not violate the First Amendment’s ban on state-sponsored religion for public school children to begin each day with a minute of meditation.

Many Jewish groups oppose moments of silence in public schools, arguing that it violates the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state because such moments could be used to persuade children to pray.

Orthodox Jewish groups, however, generally support such moments of silence.

The court’s action today means the daily minute of silence will continue, and opponents are left with no immediate options for challenging it.

It is not surprising that the Supreme Court declined to hear the challenge, said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department.

Some school prayer advocates could misinterpret the denial as court approval for prayer in school and may want the court to go even further, Stern said.

Those opposed to the 2000 law say it promotes religion because it requires all of Virginia’s one million public school children to set aside a minute each morning to “meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity.”

The American Civil Liberties Union wrote in its brief that the statute was enacted “specifically to facilitate and encourage school prayer at that fixed time.”

It’s possible that the court is waiting for a stronger case to test the moment of silence, a case with a “cleaner” legislative history that does not refer to religion or prayer in the law, said Steven Sheinberg, assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League.

According to a poll released this year, 60 percent of Jews feel public schools should avoid prayer or a moment of silence, while more than half the general public views a moment of silence as a good compromise.

At least four other states have laws linking the moment of silence to prayer or religious observance. Several other states have laws mandating a minute of silence but without an express mention of prayer, and a number of states are said to be contemplating moment-of-silence laws.

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