(Written and presented for a Public Law & Judicial Process [GOVT301] class at George Mason University.)
(open with ~ 20-30 seconds of silence)
My opponents would have you believe that I just trampled your Constitutional rights. They would tell you that my giving you a little quiet time—quiet time which you (point) might have used to write poetry, you (point) might have used to think about your boy/girlfriend, and you (point) might have used to pray—constitutes government establishment of religion.
Well, I think they’re crazy.
Now I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that I like moments of silence. I’m not going to tell you I think they should be happening every morning in every public school in Virginia. I’m not going to lecture you about how a mellow student is a less violent student. I’m simply going to lay out a simple fact in this case—and here it is: While it may be pointless, a mandatory moment of silence in public school is not Unconstitutional.
It’s simply illogical to assume that silence—an inherently neutral thing to impose, something that is imposed by teachers on their students all the time anyway—has anything to do with religion, let alone to construe it as establishing or requiring students to engage in religious activity. Sure, the kids can pray during this moment of silence but they aren’t forced to. In Virginia, teachers have been specifically instructed not to even encourage it. Students are no more likely to pray during an imposed moment of silence than they are when they’re losing a game in P.E. class or about to take a test they aren’t ready for . . . shall we prohibit P.E. and tests as well?
But as our professor was so kind to mention in red ink on one of my previous papers, the law doesn’t operate by logic. True, but in this case the law and logic would seem to agree.
The opposition is sure to bring up the case of Wallace vs. Jaffree, which came before the Supreme Court in 1985. At first glance, it would seem to shoot down my argument as the Court struck down a moment of silence law in Alabama. The difference, however, is that the law in Alabama was passed by the state legislature with the intent of reintroducing prayer—and thereby religion—into the schools. In fact, wording that specifically referenced “prayer” had been amended into the bill and the discussion surrounding that amendment made it more than clear what they intended to do with it.
The court never ruled moments of silence unconstitutional, simply that if legislation creating it is passed with specific religious intent it constitutes establishment and violates the First Amendment.
In Virginia’s case, however, where a similar law was passed without the religious overtones, the courts upheld the law. In the 2000 case Brown vs. Gilmore, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found that this state’s moment of silence law was just fine, saying, ” . . . the Act and the facts of this case show that Virginia has done nothing intended to convey a message that students should use the moment to pray. The Act instructs that students should use the moment to be silent. . . . The momentary silence neither advances nor inhibits religion.”
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court which denied an injunction on the Virginia moment of silence, and refused to hear the case—granting their de facto agreement to the decision of the lower court, and voicing clearly through their refusal that sometimes law is logical.
A moment of silence is inherently neutral, encourages no religion and limits no religion. Bad idea? I think so. Unconstitutional? Absolutely not.