RICHMOND, VA. — It's only a minute, but it is one power-packed with meaning and controversy.
At the start of each school day, Virginia public school students stand or sit quietly in a moment of silence. In classrooms throughout the state, the minute ticks down as students pray, gather their thoughts, read a textbook, or - as some teens report - share gossip in voices that get less quiet as the seconds pass.
The moment of silence in Virginia, the most recent state to mandate it, has been a daily ritual since school started in September. While the decision to set aside this quiet time has been fought out by adults - some favoring the underlying notion of school prayer and others opposed on civil-liberties grounds - it's the kids who now grapple with what to do, or think about, during this minute.
Like teachers and parents, their responses range from enthusiasm to irritation to "whatever." Among grade-school students, there's also a fair amount of uncertainty over what the minute is about.
Third-grader Hunter Hallman, a student at South Anna Elementary in Hanover County, told her mother she thought about "what we're supposed to think about ... the man who wrote the song." Her mother was puzzled until she figured out that Hunter was referring to Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to "The Star Spangled Banner." The moment of silence comes directly after the Pledge of Allegiance.
But the next minute, Hunter gave a more prosaic answer: "Sometimes I think about the ceiling fans or the backs of people's necks."
Older students have a clearer idea of what the minute is about - and a stronger reaction to what it means. While some students think about mundane matters, such as unfinished homework, others use the moment in the way its authors envisioned.
Jeremy Davis, a senior at the Governor's School for Government and International Studies in Richmond, a magnet high school with fierce competition for entrance, says he thinks and prays.
"I organize my day, and look for guidance," he says.
In the nearly 50 years since the US Supreme Court said organized school prayer is unconstitutional, there has been a passionate movement to reestablish prayer in schools. They are met by equally ardent advocates for the strict separation of church and state, who battle new attempts to make organized prayer a part of the school day. Since then, various "moment of silence" laws have been enacted and challenged in court.
This "not quite a prayer" time has been embraced by a growing number of states. "Moment of silence" laws have been enacted in 29 states.
These laws vary somewhat, with four states mandating a moment with express reference to prayer or religious activities. Seven other states have mandatory minutes that do not refer to prayer, while other states have statues allowing voluntary moments of silence, both with or without reference to religious activity. Virginia's law calls specifically for meditation, prayer, or silent activity during that time.
The US Supreme Court made clear in a 1985 ruling in an Alabama case that such laws cannot be designed to encourage students to pray. At the same time, it raised the possibility that laws that were not conceived to promote religion could pass muster. Indeed, a Georgia statute was ruled constitutional by a lower court in 1997 because it explicitly stated that the moment was not to be conducted "as a religious service or exercise but ... as an opportunity for a moment of silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day."
The moment in Virginia is applauded by some, a positive response, they say, to the violence and loss of direction penetrating the lives of too many young people. Others feel the moment borders on harassment, ripping down the constitutional provision to keep church separate from state. They argue that issues of violence or lack of direction would be better met with concrete programs for young people.
One supporter is Jeremy Davis's mother, Terri, who teaches first grade in Virginia's Prince George County. She takes the moment to redirect her thinking as a teacher and to help set the tone for the day. Mrs. Davis has never been given guidelines to explain the moment to students, but she feels it is a beneficial time for them. "For elementary students, it's a time for settling down after socializing at the start of the school day, a time to focus. If parents choose to have their children use it as a time for prayer, that is their responsibility."
But others have protested the law. Michael Schmidt, a student at J.R. Tucker High School in Richmond, wrote in his school newspaper that "without the legislation of prayer, the moment of silence has brought religion into the schools." He also worries that it will exclude students from religious minorities and those who have no religious affiliation.
Letters to newspapers make clear that the debate has been spirited, both on and off campus, as the law took effect this fall. And in a move that will mark several young lives, a group of students joined with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia to challenge the law, claiming in part that the law is in fact intended to promote state-sanctioned prayer. A US District court denied that challenge in September, but the group is appealing.
Not an option
Delegate Karen Darner (D) will introduce legislation in January to remove reference to prayer in the state statute, though she doubts it will be addressed pending the court challenge. She says many of her constituents are concerned that the moment is mandatory, rather than voluntary.
For Rebecca Taylor, though, the new minute is precious. The student at J.F. Tucker High School in Richmond wrote in her school newspaper: "I'll be talking to God, using that minute to pray and thank God I live in a country where people do not just flaunt words like religious freedom - they act on them."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society