- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

Some students prayed, some meditated, while others just waited yesterday for Virginia's first mandated moment of silence to pass.

And when it did, for most, the moment passed unremarkably.

"Not many stayed quiet," said Joel Silva, 16, an 11th-grader at Wakefield High School. "I don't think anyone prayed. Some slept. I just waited for it to be over."

Arlington schools yesterday were among the first in the state to observe the moment of silence after the state's new legislation went into effect Saturday. Fairfax and Alexandria begin summer school tomorrow.

Joel said that his geometry teacher told the class they would observe a minute of silence, but said nothing about prayer.

"No one cares about this," said Joel. "It is a waste of time."

While most students agreed, a few said that they used the time to remember their dead classmates, pray and relax.

"I liked it," said 10th-grader Erika Bouknight, 15, who used the moment to pray and remember friends. "It is time to get relaxed before school gets going."

Most students said, however, the moment wouldn't help curb violence.

"I have no idea why they think it would," said Joel. "In fact, the moment may make people mad and increase it."

Virginia's General Assembly changed the law this year to require that every school have one minute of silence where students may "meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity." Previously, the law had allowed, but not required, schools to hold a minute of silence.

Among politicians, lawyers and parents, the law sparked heated debate.

Opponents have argued that the law is a backdoor entry for religion into the schools. They say that even though the law doesn't force school administrators to encourage students to pray, some students may feel coerced into it.

And on June 22, the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court on behalf of seven Virginia families who want to overturn the law.

Stuart H. Newberger, the District of Columbia lawyer who is coordinating the ACLU's case, says the law violates the First Amendment and warned schools to be careful.

"Every school district in the state that carries out this law has to be cautious about how it does this," he said. "If it is later found to be unconstitutional, the school districts might be liable and subject to damage claims. I hope the schools are very prudent in how they implement this law."

None of the seven families involved in the suit have children in Arlington schools or in summer school.

Supporters of the law say it is not meant to force students to pray, but rather to allow prayer, along with meditation and other quiet activities in a constitutionally neutral manner. They say it will encourage the development of character in students.

The bill to create a mandatory minute of silence passed overwhelmingly in the legislature after being revised several times. In its final form, the bill required school boards to develop a policy for each school to have a minute of silence.

The question now is how schools implement the law.

Virginia teachers and principals can explicitly mention prayer under the state's new mandatory moment of silence, according to Attorney General Mark L. Earley.

Yesterday, students said they weren't told to pray. They said they weren't told much at all.

"Our teacher just said we are having a moment," Erika said. "She continued working, while we did whatever."

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