The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed for a second time to evaluate whether a state law that calls for a moment of silence in public schools meets constitutional prohibitions against state-established religion. The new case, Karcher v. May, involves a 1982 New Jersey statute. It will be argued before the Court during its next term, which begins in October.

Clarifying Its Stance

In 1985, the Court struck down a similar statute in Alabama (CT, July 12, 1985, p. 52). Some observers say the new case will give the high court an opportunity to clarify its stance on silent, voluntary prayer in public schools.

There is a crucial difference between the two moment-of-silence laws. The Alabama statute authorized a daily moment of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer.” In contrast, the New Jersey law says the designated one-minute period is “to be used solely at the discretion of the individual student.” It makes no mention of prayer or any other activity appropriate to a moment of silence.

However, after the New Jersey law was passed and several school districts introduced a minute of silence, it was challenged in court. Jeffrey May, a high school teacher who describes himself as an agnostic, charged that the moment of silence was a form of prayer in which he could not participate.

A New Jersey District Court found that the law did not expressly mandate prayer, but it nonetheless issued a restraining order that prevented schools from observing a minute of silence. In its ruling, the state court cited “improper legislative intent,” saying the elected officials who passed the law intended to reintroduce prayer into public schools. This meant the law did not pass a three-part test that courts use in determining ...

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