Silence and the classroom

THE decision by the Supreme Court of the United States on the New Jersey ``moment of silence'' law is a welcome one. But unfortunately, it doesn't quite mean that attempts to sneak in official prayer through the side door of the schoolroom have been kiboshed. The high court voted unanimously to let stand a lower-court ruling invalidating a New Jersey law that required schools to set aside a minute of silence daily for ``quiet and private contemplation and introspection.'' In an earlier Alabama case, the Supreme Court had ruled that a moment-of-silence law mentioning ``voluntary prayer'' was unconstitutional.

In the New Jersey case, the lower court ruled that even without the word ``prayer,'' the law still was a veiled attempt to ``establish'' religion.

The decision was on procedural grounds: The court held that the plaintiffs, two New Jersey legislators, had no standing to appeal the verdict, since they had filed the suit in official capacities they no longer had.

But it is widely expected that another case involving a moment-of-silence law that does not mention prayer may work its way to the high court. Previous opinions in similar cases have suggested that some members of the court are seeking an opportunity to uphold moment-of-silence laws avoiding explicit encouragement of organized prayer.

We have to wonder about the motivations in all this. We are loath to come out against any requirement for a bit of silence every now and again. How many people - in school or out - never have enough stillness in their lives to think one thought through from beginning to end? And we are certainly not against prayer.

But years of harangue from politicians notwithstanding, the Supreme Court has never taken prayer out of the schools - not voluntary, individual silent prayer. It could not possibly do so. It has, however, taken steps to limit the kind of organized, official prayer (or silent substitute) that has more to do with giving an appearance of certain values than with living the essence of those values. The court should finish the job it has begun.

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