Virginia: New School Prayer Battlefield

A new battle is under way over the long-debated issue of prayer in the schools.

The battlefield this time is the state of Virginia, where the American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court in the hopes of overturning the new Virginia law which requires a moment of silence in public schools.

Opponents of prayer in the schools regard the practice of providing a moment of silence as a tacit encouragement of prayer and as such, a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
The law leaves no question in the mind of Kent Wills, executive director of the ACLU's Virginia chapter. "The purpose of this law is clearly to promote state-sanctioned prayer in public schools," says Willis. "That is unconstitutional, and Virginia legislators should be ashamed."

In its lawsuit, the ACLU argues that public statements and the actions of state legislators who pushed the moment of silence bill prove the purpose of the law is to re-introduce prayer into public schools.

"Virginia's moment of silence law offends the fundamental constitutional guarantee that governments must remain wholly neutral in matters of religion," declares the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the parents of seven children in Henrico and Fairfax County schools.

The law approved by the General Assembly this year is to take effect July 1. It would replace a state law that gave schools the option of offering a moment of silence at the start of each school day.

The new law requires schools to set aside 60 seconds for students to meditate, pray or "engage in any other silent activity" that does not disrupt the class.

Willis notes that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case Monday has strengthened the ACLU's foundation for the Virginia lawsuit.

Justices struck down a Santa Fe, Texas, school district policy that allowed a student chosen by classmates to deliver a public invocation before home football games. A school that gives students the public forum for prayer is effectively sponsoring the message, the court said in a 6-3 ruling.

In Virginia, Attorney General Mark Earley has said the new law allows students to be told they can pray during the moment of silence.



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