Earlier this month, the state Senate of Virginia passed a bill that would mandate a moment of silence at the beginning of every day in the public schools of the state. Teachers would tell the students that the moment was for silent "meditation, prayer, or reflection." It is likely to pass Virginia's House and be signed by the governor and, thus, become law.
The law is opposed by some civil libertarians and by the editorial board of The Washington Post. An important part of the objection they raised is about the terms in which the teachers would announce the purpose of the moment. Specifically, it is argued, the mention of the option of prayer is - or verges on - involvement of the state in the promotion of religion.
The separation of church and state is one of the most important principles of our constitutional democracy, and surely there are some powerful forces at work in American society that insufficiently respect that principle. The movement to have the Ten Commandments posted in public school classrooms and in courtrooms is one prominent contemporary example.
But the proposed "moment of silence" in Virginia schools seems different.
The Ten Commandments is the fruit of a particular religious tradition. However large the majority may be of Americans who come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments are not part of the religious tradition of American Hindus or Buddhists.
Additionally, although the Ten Commandments contain some basic moral precepts that are appropriate for the public schools to inculcate in our children - against stealing, for example, or killing, or bearing false witness - it also contains three commandments that are specifically religious in content. The state has no business taking sides between those whose worldview is religious and those whose worldview is secular.
But the Virginia moment of silence abridges neither of these dimensions of state neutrality. The mention of prayer as an option takes no position on whether that prayer might be Christian or Muslim or Zoroastrian. As one who, from a nonChristian tradition, was forced to learn the Lord's Prayer in public school in the 1950s, I regard that as an important component of neutrality.
Moreover, the mention of prayer itself does not constitute a governmental endorsement of religious orientation over other possible worldviews. Prayer is listed here together with meditation and reflection, which leave room for philosophical or purely personal forms of contemplation.
If there is a value message in the Virginia instruction to the students, it would seem to be: There is a place for silence in one's life, one that has been honored by all sorts of different cultures, and one that we encourage you to discover and practice in some form suitable to yourselves. What is the harm - where is the official non-neutrality - in placing prayer in the list of the uses of silence that various peoples, through history, have found of value?
Those of us who take seriously the importance of guarding the separation of church and state should not go overboard in our zeal, allowing everything into the public space except anything with a connection to religion. It is not freedom from religion that should be the goal, but complete official neutrality regarding questions of religion.
And as for the value of encouraging our children to discover the rewards of silence, there's no need for neutrality there. In an age when the TV set in the average American home is on daily for seven hours, when children commonly do their homework to the sounds of rock 'n' roll lyrics, when music (or Muzak) plays continually in elevators and supermarkets, reclaiming the possibilities of inner richness in moments of silence is surely a gift our children should be offered, whether we believe in prayer or meditation or reflection as the means to redeem that gift.
*Andrew Bard Schmookler writes from Broadway, Va. His latest book is 'Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide' (MIT Press, 1999).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society