Amid the nation’s understandable preoccupation with tragedy at home and war abroad, it would have been easy to miss one of the most important stories of the year for the future of American schools: on October 29, the Supreme Court announced that it would not entertain a challenge to the new Virginia statute requiring a moment of silence to begin the school day.

The law, which went into effect in the summer of 2000, was challenged as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion. But a federal district judge dismissed the lawsuit, known as Brown v. Gilmore, a federal court of appeals agreed, and the Supreme Court refused to reinstate it.

The media gave the story very little play. If the Court is stepping out of the business of regulating moment-of-silence laws, however, that is very big news indeed.

Ever since the classroom prayer decisions in the early 1960s, parents who want their children to pray in school and parents who do not have been engaged in a running battle over how much religious expression to allow students, and how to avoid the appearance that the school authorities are championing religion.

The rush to avoid endorsement has led to some uncommonly silly results, like the school in New Jersey that did not allow a Christian student to read his favorite story to the class because it came from the Bible. The courts agreed with this strange decision, suggesting that the command of the First Amendment is that the government should discriminate against religious speech.

There have also been some very good compromises, like the federal statute that requires public schools to grant religious clubs the same degree of access to their facilities that they give to secular clubs. (A California ...

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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