The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to answer that question in the next few months.

Questions of motivation are at the root of a silent prayer case confronting the U.S. Supreme Court. In oral arguments last month, the justices heard lawyers from Alabama present both sides of a complicated case that drew national attention in 1983.

The trouble began in Mobile, Alabama, when agnostic Ishmael Jaffree sued the school district to prevent his three children from being exposed to classroom prayers and teacher-led grace at lunch time (CT, June 17, 1983, p. 24). Amendments to his original suit challenged a state law allowing a moment of silent prayer during the school day.

Jaffree’s original action was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Brevard Hand, who astonished legal experts by insisting that individual states, not the federal government, have jurisdiction over First Amendment cases. The highly conservative “state’s rights” view of the U.S. Constitution normally is not used by federal judges. Let Alabama decide for itself how to handle school prayer, the judge said, without dragging the federal court system into the debate.

Jaffree appealed his case and won. The State of Alabama then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to reconsider the oral prayer decision but agreed to rule, for the first time, on a moment of silent prayer.

Twenty-two states, including Alabama, have laws granting teachers permission to announce a moment of silence in class. The Alabama case turns on the reasons why the state insists on allowing prayer while others, including some parents and students, believe it is wrong. It is generally agreed that private prayer can occur anytime, anywhere, unhindered by location or activity. What is at stake ...

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