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Federal Appeals Court Upholds Georgia Moment of Silence Law

May 8, 1997
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A Georgia state law permitting a moment of silence in public schools is perfectly legal, a federal appeals court has decided.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta, handed down a unanimous decision Tuesday that a moment of silence is not an illegal attempt to bring prayer into public schools.

Many Jewish groups oppose moments of silence in public schools as a violation of the separation of church and state. They argue that such moments can be used to persuade children to pray while in school.

Orthodox Jewish groups, in general, support state-mandated moments of silence.

A Georgia state law passed in 1994 says that students will open their school day with a one-minute "silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day."

The appellate court said that the law meets the three-pronged legal "Lemon test" set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. Under the Lemon test, if a law has a secular purpose, a secular effect and does not unduly entangle government and religion, it is constitutionally sound.

Thirty states have laws permitting moments of silence in public schools for prayer or meditation, said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal affairs department.

In 1995, a school teacher in Gwinnet County, near Atlanta, refused to comply with the school board’s directive to implement the moment of silence, saying that he felt he would have to police students’ religious words and actions.

The teacher, Brian Bown, was fired for insubordination and soon filed a lawsuit challenging his dismissal and the constitutionality of the law.

In a deposition for the lower court case, Bown described himself as a born- again believer in Jesus whose religious views are closest to the Unitarian Universalist church.

The appellate ruling did not surprise Jewish groups because the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1985 decision in Wallace vs. Jaffee, indicated that a pure moment of silence would be constitutional.

Still, "we’re disappointed," said Steven Freeman, director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of Bown.

"To us it seemed pretty clear from coverage of the legislature when this law was being passed that their purpose was to promote religion." Freeman said. "There’s always concern about a slippery slope, and it is those in the religious minority who will suffer."

The Orthodox Union, which represents the centrist Orthodox community, welcomed the decision.

"We think moments of silence are just fine," said Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs.

"They are not coercive, they don’t suffer the difficulties of having a governmental entity writing some sort of neutral prayer text and it gives students the opportunity to pray if they wish and not pray if they don’t."

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