Moments of Silence Gain Ground

But opponents say the practice is school prayer in another guise

STUDENTS at the Paul Smith Elementary School in Franklin, N.H., begin their day the same way that millions of other young Americans do -- with morning announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance. But unlike many other youngsters, they also observe a moment of silence -- a long one, nearly a full minute.

Most of the squirmy kindergartners, first-, and second-graders endure the ''moment,'' principal Will Roberge says.

Franklin is one of a handful of New Hampshire towns that have adopted moment-of-silence policies, and their state is among some 20 where laws allow the practice. To many supporters, including President Clinton, the ''moment'' represents a reasonable compromise: instilling a bit of reverence and discipline in public schools today, but stopping short of the officially organized prayer prohibited by United States Supreme Court rulings.

To opponents, it's an effort by religious conservatives to get their foot in the school door and move toward what they really want: public prayer. That push has fresh energy today with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia squarely behind efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary, organized prayer in the schools.

According to Franklin Superintendent of Schools Edgar Melanson, the moment-of-silence policy has been implemented with little opposition after an 8-to-1 school-board vote. ''It's part of the school day now,'' he says, though he notes that student views of the policy have ranged from positive to scornful.

By contrast, dissent bellowed in the New Hampshire town of Merrimack when its school board voted last October to approve a moment of silence. When the vote was taken, board chairman Chris Ager says, people threw chairs and left the room trembling. Since then, the sharpest indication of continued turmoil came when some junior high students walked out during the silence.

''I think we're over it now, as far as I can tell,'' says Mr. Ager, who is a parent with children in the school system. He cast the tie-breaking vote in the 3-to-2 decision to begin the moment of silence. ''Ninety-nine percent'' of the people in Merrimack favor the policy, he says.

Another board member and parent, Charles Mower, couldn't disagree more. The community ''was overwhelmingly opposed to a moment of silence,'' he asserts. The night of the vote, he says, ''we had over 400 parents in the audience, almost all opposed. But the school board did it anyway.'' He sees the agenda of the religious right being imposed on his town.

Is a moment of silence tantamount to school prayer? The Supreme Court has indicated that moment-of-silence policies pass constitutional muster if their legislative history makes it clear they're not intended as a means of bringing prayer into public education. But the connection between moments of silence and prayer is unmistakable, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based group. ''If prayer was not prohibited, there would be no natio nal campaign for moments of silence.''

When a teacher suggests that the moment of silence be used for prayer, Mr. Lynn says, the constitutional line is violated. The courts, however, are not inclined to strike down moment-of-silence policies that appear neutral, he adds. Scanning the horizon for ''genuine'' threats to the separation of church and state, he points to the constitutional amendment on prayer.

Charles Haynes, a scholar with the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., says there is ''little complaint in most areas of the country where teachers are having moments of silence.'' He notes that those opposed to such policies have in the past ''paraded out a number of horrors'' -- such as teachers pressuring students to treat the moment like a time of prayer. ''As a matter of fact,'' he says, ''that hasn't happened.''

He sees a tendency toward overstatement on the other side of the issue too. Right-wing proponents of school prayer have hyperbolized about ''God being kicked out of the schools,'' he says, ''but kids can pray now, before tests or at a meal.''

And when it comes to organized or group prayer, Mr. Haynes says, proponents are becoming more sophisticated, framing their arguments in terms of student-initiated prayer, as opposed to prayer dictated by school authorities or other agencies of government. That tends to make the issue ''just as much about free speech and free exercise of religion as about the establishment of religion,'' he says.

The Constitution's ''establishment clause'' forbids official endorsement of religious teaching, and it has generally been the bulwark against state-sponsored prayers in school.

State sponsorship is the ''crux of the matter,'' according to Lynn. Regardless of whether prayer is initiated by a student or an official, he says, ''I don't think government should be in the place of setting a time or manner of prayer. It's still wrong-headed, particularly for religious minorities.''

On the other side of the issue, Jay Sekulow, with the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal advocacy group, says the ''concept of student-initiated prayer'' is changing the terms of the debate. He hopes that such prayer will be deemed ''protected free speech.'' A case heading to the Supreme Court from Idaho, Harris v. Joint School District 241, which involves student-initiated prayers at a graduation ceremony, will test that proposition, he says.

Haynes's hope is that opponents and proponents of school prayer can move toward a common ground where religion is given a place in the curriculum, students have some freedom to express religious ideas at school, and the hand of government to control or direct such activities is kept at a distance. In his view, the First Amendment -- the guarantor of both religious freedom and free speech -- is large enough to embrace all of this.

To many, the 'moment' is a compromise: instilling reverence in public schools, but stopping short of organized prayer.

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