The U.S. Supreme Court once again is considering the constitutionality of a state law that requires public schools to permit a daily “moment of silence.”
The Court last month heard oral arguments in a case known as Karcher v. May. The case involves a New Jersey statute that requires a daily period of silence “to be used solely at the discretion of the individual student … for quiet and private contemplation or introspection.”
The statute differs slightly from an Alabama law that the high court struck down in 1985 (CT, July 12, 1985, p. 52). That law authorized a daily moment of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer.” In a six-to-three ruling, the justices said the Alabama law was designed to bypass the Court’s 1962 decision outlawing organized prayer in public schools. However, a majority of the justices indicated they might uphold a law that does not specifically mention prayer.
The New Jersey law now under consideration fits that description. At issue is whether the law violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In 1985, a lower court struck down the law saying that because it accommodated prayer, it failed to meet the Supreme Court’s requirement that state laws have a “primary secular purpose.”
A key point in the New Jersey case is legislative intent. Did the New Jersey legislators have in mind bringing back school prayer? Opponents of the law argued before the high court that the primary purpose of the law was “to reinject prayer into the schools.” However, former Solicitor General Rex E. Lee, arguing in favor of the law, told the justices the law’s primary purpose was “quieting down” students and that accommodation ...1
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