- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2001

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist yesterday refused an American Civil Liberties Union request to block the mandatory "moment of silence" in Virginia schools while a constitutional attack on the practice wends through the courts.
"After more than a year of operation, the Virginia statute providing for a minute of silence seems to have meant just that," the chief justice said, adding that no evidence has been presented showing teachers have sought to lead students in any kind of collective prayer.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III personally signed the detailed brief asking the high court to refuse the ACLU's emergency request, and state Attorney General Randolph A. Beales has excoriated the ACLU for pushing the matter.
"It is truly sad that the ACLU is expending so much energy and resources in an effort to stop Virginia's schoolchildren from starting the school day with a minute of silence," Mr. Beales said Friday, when the request was filed.
Last year, the Virginia General Assembly passed and Mr. Gilmore signed a bill requiring every public school to hold a minute of silence, during which children can pray, meditate or do any other silent, nondisruptive activity. The ACLU sued to stop the observance. A district judge in Alexandria and a 2-1 decision by the federal appeals court in Richmond have upheld the law.
The governor's brief for the Supreme Court said there is no way except to put the word "pray" in the law to let more than 87,000 classroom teachers and 1.1 million public school students know they have a constitutional right to do so during silent time.
"If they are to be informed about permissible uses for a minute of silence, the information must be written down," Mr. Gilmore said.
Although a previous law was in effect from 1976 to 2000, there was no evidence it was "a government prayer exercise," Chief Justice Rehnquist said in a written, in-chambers opinion on four printed pages.
Opponents claim that suggestions in the current law, in effect since July 1, 2000, that allow the moment to be used for contemplation or prayer violate the First Amendment ban on government support for religion.
"Without expressing any view of my own, or attempting to predict the views of my colleagues I can say that their position is less than indisputable," Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, noting that petitioner Ed Brown and his ACLU attorneys failed to prevail in District Court on the merits of the case and their plea for an injunction.
"Applicants are seeking not merely a stay of a lower court judgment, but an injunction against the enforcement of a presumptively valid state statute," the chief justice wrote in the opinion issued yesterday.
The case is before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also has denied the ACLU request to forbid the "moment of silence" until the matter is settled in the courts.
Chief Justice Rehnquist said the opponents' failure to ask sooner for Supreme Court help contradicts their claim of "urgency."
Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU's Richmond chapter, said it has asked for a temporary halt to the law at every level, though Chief Justice Rehnquist's decision leaves it zero for three.
Students observe the minute in varied ways. Some bow their heads and pray, some gaze out the window and others finish homework.
Some students across the state, including some of the plaintiffs' children, walk out of class before the moment of silence. Some of them initially were disciplined by their schools, but the situation has since settled into a routine on which students and school systems agree.
Still, the ACLU's Richmond chapter says it has received reports of teachers bowing their heads, which they said students may see as an indication that the class should pray.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.


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