- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

RICHMOND Legislation that would require every Virginia public school to hold a minute of silence for students to pray, reflect or meditate Thursday survived a heated debate in the Senate Education and Health Committee, which approved the bill and sent it on to the full Senate.
The bill mandates that teachers in every classroom have students observe one minute of silent "meditation, prayer or reflection" at the beginning of each day.
The measure passed in a 10-4 vote, with several Democrats joining the committee's Republicans. The bill still must pass the full Senate, which seems likely given Thursday's vote. It then would go to the House.
Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican and the bill's sponsor, told fellow committee members he's not from the religious-right wing of the party, but said it's time to do something to remind children there is a higher purpose. He said he hoped the bill might do something to stem the tide of school violence.
"I really wish it were that simple," said Sen. Janet Howell, Fairfax Democrat and one of the four dissenters on the committee. She and other opponents said students could be pressured into praying. They questioned the bill's constitutionality and whether it is the right thing to do.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat and another dissenter, said the bill would step across a line drawn by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 when it struck down an Alabama law promoting prayer in school. The court has said moments of silence are permissible, but schools cannot promote prayer during that time.
"Those who want to live in a world where God is dominant and religious people are dominant, I would suggest they move to Iran," Mr. Saslaw said.
The committee also approved an amendment that would have the state attorney general defend any lawsuit against localities for following the proposed law. That would make state resources available to fend off any lawsuits certain to be filed, lawmakers say if the bill passes.
Senators turned back an attempt to strike the requirement that students pray, meditate or reflect during the minute.
"The crux of that is to gut the bill," Mr. Barry said.
"The crux of that is to make it constitutional," countered Mrs. Howell.
Lawmakers, however, amended the bill to allow students to do any quiet activity.
Current law allows school districts to impose a minute of silence. A few districts around the state have done so, but no Northern Virginia school district has exercised that option and some have apparently turned back attempts to use the state law.
When Rita Warren went to ask Fairfax City to use the option and require silence, officials turned her down, saying it wasn't a requirement, she said. Mrs. Warren, known to Northern Virginians as the woman who sponsors the religious creche scenes in public places around Christian holidays, is one of the bill's vocal proponents.
Addressing the committee Thursday, Mrs. Warren told the senators she pushed for a similar law in Massachusetts that was passed and subsequently reviewed and upheld by federal courts.
She told senators she was raised under Mussolini's reign in Italy during World War II and had a particular appreciation for First Amendment rights. She told them not allowing prayer in school violates the right to free expression.
"We are willing to compromise by requesting a moment of silence," she said.

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