The phones began to ring at the Indiana Civil Liberties Union immediately following the announcement that public schools in Pendleton were instituting a "moment of silence." Members of the media clearly anticipated controversy–and were just as…
The phones began to ring at the Indiana Civil Liberties Union immediately following the announcement that public schools in Pendleton were instituting a "moment of silence." Members of the media clearly anticipated controversy–and were just as clearly crestfallen when informed that there is nothing unconstitutional about silence. The number of reporters who called, and their disappointment with the response, confirmed once again how misunderstood the First Amendment religion clauses really are.
The First Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, limits what government can do. That’s why civil liberties lawyers talk so much about state action, which is legalese for "did government do this?" Originally intended as a restraint only upon the federal government, the Bill of Rights was made applicable to state and local government action by the Fourteenth Amendment. Public schools are government, thus the First Amendment applies to the schools.
The religion clauses of the First Amendment prohibit government imposed or endorsed religious observance. They also prohibit government interference with truly voluntary devotions. If Johnny wants to bow his head over the lunchroom meatloaf–a prudent precaution in many school cafeterias–school officials are constitutionally forbidden to interfere. Just as school personnel may not require Johnny to pray, they may not prevent his truly voluntary devotions.
The guiding principle is government neutrality. People paid with our tax dollars may neither sponsor religion nor burden it. So if a school decides to implement a genuine moment of silent reflection, it clearly may do so. Some years ago, the Supreme Court struck down Georgia legislation establishing a moment of silence on the grounds that it wasn’t genuine; the legislature had specifically stated that the purpose of the law was to allow school personnel to reintroduce prayer in the classroom.
If a teacher says "Now class, we will be observing a moment of silence and I expect you to bow your heads and pray," the teacher has violated the First Amendment. But a statement that "we will now be quiet, and reflect for a moment or two before beginning the day’s activities" is constitutionally appropriate and probably pedagogically sound.
Those of us who send our sons and daughters through the public schools have the right to rely on the neutrality of the teachers and administrators they will encounter in those schools in matters as important as the religious formation of our children. We have the right to expect that our families’ religious beliefs will be respected, that our children will be excused for religious holidays if those are not already school holidays, and that they will not be pressured to take part in religious exercises. A genuine moment of silence does not violate any of those expectations.