Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ruling allows moment of silence in Texas schools

The media has almost completely ignored a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Monday that upheld a Texas law that mandates a one minute period of silence at the beginning of each school day. Apparently, anything that smacks of faith in schools is a joke to many of those who make decisions about what news we read in our newspapers or see on network television programs.

I addressed the court ruling in my Newton County News column this week. It is reprinted below:

You can pray in school.

That is an absolute certainty. Every student, teacher, and anyone else who is involved in the day-to-day activities at any public school can take solace in their faith. What our courts have ruled cannot be done is for a teacher or principal to lead students in prayer or to have an administrator or a board of education require that a prayer be said.

Our national media has almost completely overlooked an appellate court ruling Monday that clarifies another gray area in that wall.

Opponents of prayer in school have done their best to remove any semblance of religion. They have fought against the use of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. They have gone to the mats to stop students from offering their own prayers as part of graduation services. They have even fought the offering of prayer at football games, as if in some way these uses of prayer threatened the very existence of the United States of America.

On Monday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals backed a Texas law that provides for “one minute of silence” following the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. During that time, the law says:

Each student may, as the student chooses, reflect, pray, or meditate., or engage in any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student. Each teacher or other school employee in charge of students during that period shall ensure that each of those studentsremains silent and does not act in a manner that is likely tointerfere with or distract another student.

Though the court’s decision notes it is obvious, that Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who wrote this law, wanted to provide a pathway for students to pray (a pathway which they already had), it clearly offers students alternatives as long as they stay quiet. And since when is there anything wrong with that?

The court opinion acknowledged Wentworth’s motive of bringing prayer to the school, but noted:

“Some legislators may have religious motives, but that alone does not invalidate an act with an otherwise secular legislative purpose.”

The opinion also features this thought:

“Long ago, the Supreme Court found that the ‘daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, or even the observance of a moment of reverent silence at the opening of class, may . . . serve the solely secular purposes of the devotional activities without jeopardizing either the religious liberties of any members of
the community or the proper degree of separation between the spheres of religion and government.’ “

The couple who challenged the Texas law, David and Shannon Croft, claimed their children’s constitutional rights were being violated by the law. The word “pray” in the law was cited in their efforts to have the law stricken, as their lawyer claimed its intent was to indoctrinate students in Protestant Christianity. The three-judge panel did not buy that argument, as its opinion clearly states:

There is nothing in the record to suggest that the primary effect of the 2003 Amendments is to advance Protestant Christianity. The statute is facially neutral between religious and non-religious activities that students can choose to engage in during the moment of silence. Nor does the word “pray” by itself connote an endorsement of Protestant Christianity.

As another example of the ills of today’s society, David and Shannon Croft did not make a single effort to contact their legislators or school officials about the law. They hired a lawyer and went directly to court.

Hopefully, our nation is getting beyond the point where we allow a small handful of people like the Crofts to set the rules for everyone else. While no one should ever coerce students into prayer, the idea of any school without a trace of religion should frighten all of us.

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