Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Appeals Court to Review Moment of Silence in Texas Schools

Oh, that tricky First Amendment. While a wonderful component of our country’s Constitution, the details of its wording have been at the center of some of our most emotional court battles. The debate concerning “freedom of religion” in Texas public schools will take center stage in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this fall.

The exact text of the First Amendment concerning religion states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Almost since the ink was dry on the parchment, Americans have been arguing over the point at which our government’s actions cross the line into “establishing” a religion.

In 2003, Texas legislators passed a law requiring that all students follow the morning pledge with a minute of silence. The purpose of this quiet time is to allow our children to “reflect, pray, (or) meditate” before diving into their daily studies. As expected, not much time passed before the allowance (whether direct or implied) of prayer in school sparked some controversy.

A North Texas couple is appealing a January decision by U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn which upheld the state law allowing the moment of silence. As the lawyer for the couple stated, the state’s assertion that the silence should be used to reflect on personal patriotism is simply "a cover for reinstituting organized prayer in schools."

While no one is denying that it was the intention of some Texas legislators to bring prayer back into the classroom, Judge Lynn ruled that the secular arguments had to be considered when determining the legality of the case. As she stated after making her decision, "Legislators repeatedly emphasized that students could stare at their shoes, think about upcoming exams, think about their pets, engage in other nonverbal activities during the moment of silence, as well as pray, if they wished." So, since the state is not endorsing or requiring the practice of a particular religion, the moment of silence was allowed to continue.

Both sides have strong supporters following them to the Court of Appeals, and many friend-of-the-court briefs have been written. In a few months, we will know if Texas students will continue to start their days in silence, or if this practice is determined to be an instance of government overstepped its bounds.

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