Court won't review law requiring minute of silence in schools

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court rejected a challenge Monday to a state law requiring schoolchildren to observe a daily minute of silence.

The court did not comment in turning down an appeal from opponents who claim Virginia's minute of silence is an unconstitutional government encouragement of classroom prayer in public schools.

The state says the minute of silence does not violate the separation of church and state, because children may meditate or stare out the window for 60 seconds if they choose, so long as they are quiet.

The court's action means the daily minute of silence will continue, and opponents are left with no immediate options to challenge it.

In other action Monday, the court:

--Agreed to hear the case of a man who was denied an oil refinery job because of a disability that his own doctor said could kill him.

--Assured that Washington politicians don't have to worry about their paychecks. The court turned back a constitutional challenge to congressional salary increases dating back a decade.

--Refused to revive an Indianapolis law requiring parental consent before children may play violent arcade games, which a lower court struck down as an unconstitutional damper on free speech.

For the first time since the Supreme Court building was completed 66 years ago, the justices convened at another location -- a U.S. district court -- because of concern over possible mailed anthrax contamination.

The minute-of-silence law, enacted in 2000 makes the minute of silence mandatory for Virginia's 1 million public school pupils, and specifically lists prayer as one silent activity they might choose.

The law's preamble states its purpose as assuring that "free exercise of religion be guaranteed within the schools."

The American Civil Liberties Union wrote:

"Although the statute permits students to engage in other forms of silent or meditative activity during the time period set aside in the classroom, the statute was enacted specifically to facilitate and encourage school prayer at that fixed time."

The ACLU argued that the appeals court ruling cannot be reconciled with a 1985 Supreme Court case, which struck down a similar moment of silence law in Alabama. In that case, the high court found that the state was placing an official imprimatur on classroom prayer.

At least four other states have laws like Virginia's, which both require the silence and link it to prayer or religious observance. The others are Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee and West Virginia. Several other states have laws mandating schoolday silence but without an express mention of prayer.

In Virginia, the ACLU's lawsuit on behalf of seven students and their parents failed in lower federal courts. A divided three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the law constitutional because students may choose for themselves how to spend the silent time.

Opponents also lost a last-minute attempt to block the law from being enforced this school year.

The appeals court "found ample evidence that ... (the Virginia law) has a clear secular purpose, namely, to provide a moment for quiet reflection in the wake of high-profile instances of violence in our public schools," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in rejecting that request last month.

"The act does not require students to do anything or say anything or hear anything," Virginia Attorney General Randolph A. Beales wrote in asking the court to reject the ACLU's broader appeal.

"It does not require them to make any gesture or acknowledgment. It only requires them to stay in their seats, to remain silent and not to distract their classmates."

The Virginia law replaced one in place since 1976 that allowed schools to observe silence if they choose. Fewer than 20 schools districts statewide did so.

The First Amendment guarantees both that government will not promote or "establish" religion, and that Americans may exercise their chosen religion freely. In practice, that has meant shifting standards for what is allowed in public places such as schools.

The justices banned organized prayer during class hours in the 1960s, and classroom display of the Ten Commandments in 1980. In the past decade the court has banned clergy-led prayer at high school graduation ceremonies and student-led prayer at football games.

But the court also ruled in 1993 that a public school must let a religious group show Christian movies in the building, and ruled in 1995 that a public university could not deny funding to a Christian publication.

The justices have also allowed taxpayer-funded computers and remedial help by public school teachers at religious schools.

In June, the court ruled that if the Boy Scouts and 4-H can use a public school as a meeting hall, a children's Bible study class can, too.

The court has agreed to decide next year whether taxpayer money may go to underwrite tuition at religious schools.

The Virginia case is Brown v. Gilmore, 01-384.