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 is government acknowledgment of religion as an integral part of daily life.

That is the same question the high court addressed in its last term in several contexts, including a challenge to a publicly sponsored nativity display in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The court has substantially moderated its stance on the separation of church and state, making accommodation for religious expression a fixture of current legal precedent.

Proponents of school prayer, Christmas crèches, and other outward indications of faith say their position is rooted solidly in American history and endorsed soundly by the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. Opponents say these “exercises” are designed to muscle minority views into obscurity by promoting Christianity.

The Alabama statute is a beefed-up version of a 1978 law that Jaffree and his lawyer consider constitutional. The original law said public school teachers in grades one through six “shall announce that a period of silence, not to exceed one minute, shall be observed for meditation.” In 1981, Alabama state senator Donald G. Holmes unsuccessfully pushed for passage of a bill that would have allowed oral prayer in public schools. Later he succeeded in amending the existing “moment of silence” measure by extending it to include all grades in all public schools and allowing the teacher to announce that the silent moment may be used for “voluntary prayer.” This formed the basis for the law Jaffree opposed.

Ronnie Williams, the attorney representing Jaffree before the Supreme Court, contended that the First Amendment “prohibits the state from transforming an individual’s right to silently pray, at any time, into a formal act of group worship in a tax-supported institution attended by individuals of all faiths and beliefs.…” Adding the word “prayer” to the law, Williams said, is an attempt to sneak religion in the back door. Noting that one minute is about the time it takes to recite the Lord’s Prayer, Williams’s brief says, “If a teacher says the time may be used for prayer that’s what will happen.”

Meanwhile, attorneys for the state of Alabama are busy sniffing out mixed motives on the other side. A brief filed on behalf of Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, who brought the appeal before the Supreme Court, said, “The logic of strict separation as applied by the lower federal courts has become hostile to the individually initiated attempts of students to exercise their religious liberty.”

Searching for religious motives and condemning them categorically as unconstitutional distorts the accepted balance between free exercise and no establishment of religion, and it “demonstrates hostility,” the brief states. “A search for a religious purpose subtly shifts toward a process of rooting out religiously motivated action.”

Lawyers defending the revised Alabama statute said it was necessary because of a growing impression that students do not have a right to pray in school, silently or otherwise. Supporters of silent prayer referred repeatedly to the Supreme Court’s nativity display decision and historical precedent, including the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that provided for government services in U.S. territory northwest of the Ohio River. It stated that the need for “religion, morality, and knowledge” formed the basis for free public education.

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Williams dismissed historical precedent, saying the traditional three-part test of constitutionality should be applied to see whether a moment of silence has a secular purpose, neither advances nor inhibits religion, and does not excessively entangle church with state.

Kimberlee Colby, attorney for the Christian Legal Society (CLS), said it is likely that the high court will uphold a moment of silence or refer it back to federal appeals court. CLS filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Alabama, saying the statute “represents a reasonable accommodation of the spiritual needs of students.” A ruling by the Court is expected this spring.

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