- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley, in court papers filed late Monday, defended the state's new mandatory minute of silence in public schools as an acceptable way of allowing students their free exercise of religion.
The filing is the Republican attorney general's response to a lawsuit the state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter filed in federal court in Alexandria asking that Virginia's new law be struck down because it encourages prayer in schools, a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The law allows students to "meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity" that doesn't distract the class something the attorney general said is permissible by law.
"The minute of silence law is consistent with guarantees of religious liberty and with prohibitions against the establishment of religion," Mr. Earley argued.
The ACLU in June challenged the law, but it took effect July 1, and summer school students have been observing a minute of silence already.
Kent Willis, executive director of the state ACLU, said yesterday the group had not yet received a copy of the attorney general's response.
Throughout the debate Mr. Earley has been careful to say the law allows prayer as one of many options so as to protect the right to free expression not because lawmakers want to make students pray.
But the ACLU, citing quotes from several state newspapers, argues prayer is exactly what many lawmakers had in mind.
Mr. Earley stressed to the court that the previous law allowing local school systems to decide whether to hold a minute of silence for meditation, prayer or silent activity had been on the books since 1976, and was never challenged.
"The 2000 session of the General Assembly amended this law, but, in doing so, did nothing to change its essential character," Mr. Earley argued. "Instead of delegating to each school division the decision … the General Assembly simply made the decision that a minute of silence shall be established in public school classrooms statewide."
Most of the attorney general's filing is a point-by-point response to the ACLU's original suit. The basic goal is to get the case to oral arguments before a judge. The court now must set a date and select a judge.

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