Tuesday, November 20, 2001

All Prince George’s County public schools will observe a moment of silence if a bill sponsored by Delegate Kerry Hill, Prince George’s Democrat, finds enough backers in the county delegation and at the upcoming General Assembly session.
According to the bill, schools in the county will observe a moment of silence each school day during which students will meditate silently. The bill does not specify how long the “moment” would be.
“After Columbine and September 11, every school district observed a moment of silence. If we think it is workable post-disaster, it should be workable the rest of the time,” said Mr. Hill, who is co-pastor of the New Chapel Baptist Church in Camp Springs.
He said the bill does not specifically spell out what students could do during the moment of silence. “If a child doesn’t want to pray, they don’t have to,” he said, adding that children need the moment as a respite from daily pressures.
Mr. Hill introduced a similar bill in the House during the last session calling for a moment of silence at all Maryland schools, but it didn’t get out of the Ways and Means Committee.
Supporters say the bill may have a better chance this year, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and after the Supreme Court last month refused a request to block Virginia’s moment of silence. That law sets aside a minute for students to pray, meditate or conduct another silent activity of their choice, as long as it isn’t disruptive.
“I think the Supreme Court’s decision will give us more validity and credibility,” Mr. Hill said.
He also said he is more confident that Prince George’s residents want such a bill.
“Prince George’s is my home, and a lot of my constituents have asked me to submit this bill,” he said. He added that if the local delegation approves it, there is a good chance that the General Assembly would pass it as a “local courtesy.”
Some school board members have already voiced their opposition to the bill. Doyle Neimann, who represents District 3 on the board, said the bill is a “backdoor way to try and bring religion into our schools.”
Mr. Neimann said that the county schools already have a number of character-education programs in place, and that Mr. Hill should focus on those instead of introducing a moment of silence.
“We need more emphasis on peaceful behavior, conflict resolution, cooperation and tolerance, and the moment of silence doesn’t do any of that. It is just a gimmick,” he said.
But the bill also has supporters on the school board. “My interpretation is that this is a moment of silence that is religion-neutral,” said District 5 member Robert Callahan, who proposed a motion at the last school board meeting to support Mr. Hill’s bill. The motion failed, but Mr. Callahan said he believes a moment of silence could help in the wake of recent tragic events.
“It would just be a moment to sit back and relax, stop business for a moment. After the September 11 attacks many people would often take a moment to think about what had happened,” he said.
The issue of separation of church and state is not relevant because the moment does not necessarily have to be used for prayer, he said.
Public schools in Virginia have been observing a moment of silence since July 2000 a decision that was heavily opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that it promoted religion.
A spokeswoman for the Maryland branch of the ACLU yesterday said her group did not wish to comment on Mr. Hill’s bill.

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