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On Target

How absolute the knave is! We must speak
by the card, or equivocation will undo us.
-- Shakespeare: Hamlet V.i.
Who's kidding whom? That's the question the Supreme Court should be asking, now that the nine most powerful jurists in the land will probably be looking into Georgia's "moment of silence" law which provides for a period of quiet at the beginning of the school day. Along with handful of other Bible-belt states, and some northern cousins like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, Georgia has become particularly notorious for its resistance to the spirit and intent of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and a profusion of court rulings that proclaim, in the most elegant and exacting legalese possible, that no, public schools cannot orchestrate prayer or any form of religious ritual in the public classroom.

What part of that don't you understand, Georgia?

When I was a kid, you learned a lot while growing up with your neighborhood pals; there were those subtle cues and rituals that we never really shed even after you stowed the Schwinn bike for and exchanged the balloon tires for some over-priced sports utility vehicle. One such lesson was the wink, the quick flutter of an eye which meant that whatever you were saying really wasn't to be taken as the literal truth. What was coming out of your mouth was just the opposite of what you really meant. In short, you were lying. The wink is an American institution, of course, from the golf course to the board room, but it should become the icon for another segment of the culture -- those folks busy defending the need for a "moment of silence" or "silent meditation" in the public schools or other institutions of government, who insist that they're really not trying to promote religious belief or religious ritual.


So, a bit of history is in order. For guys like Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, the denouement of American Civilization commenced when Madalyn Murray O'Hair supposedly threw god out of the classroom and out of our national life by persuading an "activist" Supreme Court to strike down the practice of prayer and Bible verse recitation in public schools. Mrs. Murray, according to legend, thus opened the cultural floodgates for a wave of deficit spending, sexual debauchery, drugs, licentiousness, promiscuity, blasphemy, fluoridation of water, gangs, teaching sex ed and evolution to impressionable kids and -- some might argue -- possibly even the Sunday morning infomercials. The obvious solution to AIDS, violent crime, widespread corruption and everything else which besets the world, then, is to return to those nostalgic times when supposedly school kids everywhere bowed their heads each morning in public school classrooms throughout the land.

Enter the Religious Freedom Amendment. If you can't alter the constitution to legalize prayer in school, well, find some other way ...which is precisely what religious groups and certain political interests have spent the last 35 years attempting to do.

Granted, all those people who were disillusioned by the multitudinous rulings which struck down school prayer have persisted in their efforts to return the practice to public schools. On local school boards, in state legislatures and in the halls of the House and Senate in Washington, crafty minds have been laboring to find a way -- any way -- to institute some form of prayer even though the constitution and the courts have clearly stated "No way!" They've tried "voluntary prayer," which permitted students who did not wish to pray the opportunity to leave the classroom, stand out in the hall, and re-enter once the prayer has been recited. Of course, there wasn't that much attention to this "voluntary prayer" or sensitivity to the rights of children and parents who objected to the practice back before 1963; and court rulings since then have noted that students, especially those in high school, are a "captive audience" and face social ostracism and even violence if they "chose" not to participate. "Voluntary" prayer was cobbled together as a shabby substitute for the earlier forms of teacher-led praying, and offered as a non-coercive form of religious ritual that might survive constitutional scrutiny.


And there's the argument that maybe a prayer could be devised that really wasn't a prayer, was "non-denominational" and sufficiently vague so as not to be identified with any one particular sect, and, incredibly, did not involve any endorsement or appeal to religion or a god. In New York, for instance, legal experts hired by the State Regents sweated long into the night trying to compose such a supplication, only to fail when the high court struck down this "Regent's Prayer" in the ENGLEv. VITALE case in 1962. Variations have persisted over the years, of course, and many a city council, school board and legislature has attempted to defend an opening prayer to official business by disingenuously maintaining that it really isn't a prayer at all, but a rhetorical device to create a moment of dignity and solemnity.


"When you examine the legislative record and check out the individuals and groups promoting the moment of silence, it is no coincidence that these are the same folks who in the past have supported just about every ruse and artifice to smuggle some form of prayer -- often Christian prayer --
into the classrooms..."
Georgia and other states, frustrated in efforts to devise some ruse to make sure that school kids were exposed to a modicum of religious ritual in the course of the school day,then mandated that students would participate in a "moment of silence." In 1985 the Supreme Court overturned one law which provided for a "period of silence not to exceed one minute...for meditation or daily prayer." Legislators and religious groups then huddled again. Maybe they could leave out any reference to prayer and religion altogether, but still have a "moment of silence" ? It was better than nothing.

When you examine the legislative record and check out the individuals and groups promoting the "moment of silence," it is no coincidence that these are the same folks who in the past have supported just about every ruse and artifice to smuggle some form of prayer -- often Christian prayer -- into the classrooms. That should give us all pause for thought, and it should make us a bit skeptical about the claim that a "moment of silence" serves a distinctive and secular purpose. When American Atheists and other groups have challenged the silent prayer, well-coifed government lawyers inevitably rushed for the nearest news microphone to declare that there was absolutely nothing religious about the ritual. There are even occasions when these legal eagles insist that a prayer during a city council meeting, or the opening of a legislative sessions, really isn't a prayer, isn't religious, but is instead symbolic the equivalent of a parliamentary gavel.

By that reasoning, one might wish to propose some functional substitutes for the "moment of silence" which all sides in the controversy could aqree on as being 1) clearly non-religious in purpose and 2) conducive to creating an atmosphere of solemnity, or focusing students, or legislators, or the public on the tasks at hand. Physical activity is good for both the body and brain -- how about a "moment of running-in-place"? Pop-psych devotees claim that shouting or beating a foam bat on the ground helps to relieve stress and tension. What about a "moment of anger-work" (that should do well in California)? Or why not a "moment of reading," or a period of simply letting students do whatever they want?

I doubt that religious leaders and politicians will go along with these ideas. They obviously prefer the disingenuous "moment of silence" which just about every reasonable person knows is simply a trial balloon in the continual quest to find a way to sneak prayer or some other religious ritual back into the classrooms. We should have more respect for those religious advocates who are above-board and openly, utterly honest in their efforts to remove First Amendment protections against the practice, and who make no bones about the fact that, yes, they want prayer in schools --not just a "moment of silence." Let's stop the kidding here. I, for one would rather have to oppose an honest, blatant frontal-assault on our First Amendment right of state-church separation than a "moment of silence" law that's made with the wink of an eye.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.