- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Virginia teachers and principals can explicitly mention prayer under the state's new mandatory moment of silence, Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley said Thursday, clarifying a memo issued this week that had left the issue in doubt.

The silence is to be used for prayer, meditation or another silent activity, and teachers can direct students to do so, Mr. Earley told The Washington Times Thursday.

"That moment of silence belongs to that student to exercise," Mr. Earley said. "If it is to pray, that is fine. If it is to do nothing, that is fine."

The question for state officials has been how much direction teachers and principals should give children regarding how they use the moment of silence.

Many proponents of the law wanted explicit instructions that the children could pray during the time, while opponents said that could be construed as coercion to pray.

That is why the memo, issued Tuesday by Jo Lynne DeMary, state superintendent of public instruction, prompted criticism and questions.

In the memo, Ms. DeMary suggests that teachers and principals simply say at the beginning of the day a moment of silence will commence.

Published media reports interpreted the guidelines to mean that teachers should not mention prayer. But the attorney general disagreed.

Mr. Earley said Thursday that although the memo's instructions are acceptable, it would also be acceptable if teachers told students they can pray, meditate or engage in other silent activities as they choose the language of the law.

"The purpose of this is to make sure the right of every pupil to the free exercise of religion is guaranteed," Mr. Earley said.

Ms. DeMary also recommended that a copy of the law, which mentions prayer as one use of the silent period, be sent home so students and parents could be familiar with what is allowed and expected.

Ms. DeMary's memo was only a recommendation and local school systems will have the final say over how to implement the policy.

Ms. DeMary did not return a phone call Thursday.

Mr. Earley issued a statement late Wednesday after he felt the media reports misinterpreted the memo.

"The Virginia Education Department has not told school districts that they should 'avoid telling students they have the option to pray,' " Mr. Earley said in the statement.

Mr. Earley singled out The Washington Post report Wednesday, which he called "misleading and inaccurate."

The Washington Times also ran an article from the Associated Press that said schools should refrain from telling students they can pray during the silence.

The General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a change this year from the state's voluntary policy, which lets school systems decide whether they would have a period of silence, to a mandatory policy so that every school will open with a minute of silence.

The law charges the attorney general with defending it against challenges and most observers agree a challenge is probable.

Mr. Earley said he is comfortable defending the law and the instructions teachers may give to students.

"This law has been on the books in Virginia for a number of years and there are a number of schools in Virginia that have been implementing this for a number of years," Mr. Earley said.

Appomattox County is one of those districts, having instituted a moment of silence this school year under the previous voluntary state policy.

Superintendent Walter F. Krug said schools in the county hold their moment of silence in the middle of the school announcements, which are broadcast on the loudspeaker to every classroom.

Mr. Krug said the principal reads an announcement telling students the purpose of the silence: "As we begin our school day, let us take a few moments to reflect quietly on our day, our activities and what we hope to accomplish."

The school system has had no complaints so far, Mr. Krug said, and plans to continue with its moment of silence.

The state policy will take effect July 1, the same day as most of the laws passed during this year's session. Most students will be on vacation and only summer school students will be in class.

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