Federal Judge to Decide Fate of Virginia's 'Minute of Silence'

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The Virginia law requiring a minute of silence at the beginning of each school day is now in the hands of a federal judge who must decide whether the American Civil Liberties Union is correct in its claim that the law is unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment.

US District Court Judge Claude Hilton, who heard arguments from both the ACLU and the state of Virginia Friday, gave no indication as to when he will rule on the suit.

The Virginia law stipulates that a minute of silence must be observed in order for students to be able to meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity. The objection to the word "pray" is what triggered the ACLU's lawsuit on behalf of eight high school students.

ACLU Attorney Stuart Newberger promised that if Hilton upholds the "minute of silence" law, which actually went into effect in July, he will appeal.

"If this law goes unchanged, there will be a lot of litigation to follow," Newberger said. "The case will be taken to a court of appeals in Richmond ... The Supreme Court has also taken an interest in this issue."

"This is absolutely not an anti-prayer case. It is simply about the role of government in prayer," Newberger said. "With the actual word 'pray' in the statute, the state is saying prayer is a favored practice. The First Amendment does not allow the government to get involved in the prayer business. If the state gets into the prayer business, then all of our liberties are in danger."

However, Virginia's Solicitor General William Hurd, who is defending the state against the ACLU's lawsuit, contends that the Commonwealth of Virginia has had a statute since 1986 that allows schools to have a minute of silence if they so chose.

The current minute of silence law that took effect July 1st of this year was actually an amendment to the 1986 law, according to Hurd, and now requires school districts to hold the moment of silence before the start of each school day. Hurd said he did not understand why the law is only now being scrutinized.

"It has been on the books for ... years, and it never posed a problem, why now?" Hurd asked. "Including the word prayer in the statute protects religious liberty in schools. The amendment changes the decision-making process by moving the decision from the school district to the state."

Hurd said he is optimistic about the state's position in the case.

"It went very well and we are confident that the law is constitutional," Hurd said. "We and our opposition agree that the moment of silence helps. Our opponents want to protect the right to pray, but they don't want children in schools to pray."

Among the eight students present in court Friday, Vanessa Brown, a sixteen-year-old at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, said she is protesting each day when the minute of silence is held.

"I am protesting by standing up quietly and standing in the hall during the minute of silence," Brown said. "My First Amendment right allows me to walk out and I will continue to protest."

Brown said reactions to her protest were mixed among her classmates.

"I have some supporters in school, and there are others who don't understand why I am doing it," Brown said. "I am fighting for their rights also."

Newberger said the state's intention was clear when Governor Gilmore signed the bill into law and said he was glad that "our children can bow their heads and pray."

"I find it ironic that in the state where the First Amendment was born, is where it is being ignored," Newberger said. "If the school provides prayer as an option, it is over the line. It is saying it is a favored practice."

Earlier in the week, a three-judge panel at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond rejected the ACLU's attempt to gain an injunction against the "minute of silence" law.