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Virginia Passes Revised Moment-of-Silence Bill

By The Associated Press

3.7.2000

RICHMOND, Va. The House of Delegates has revived legislation requiring public schools to start the day with a silent minute in which students could pray. After eliminating the provision critics found most troubling, the House voted 75-23 yesterday to pass state Sen. Warren E. Barry's revised bill. If the Senate agrees to the revision, the bill will go to Gov. Jim Gilmore, who supports the measure.

A 1976 state law allows local school districts to require a minute of silence to meditate, pray or engage in any other activity that does not disrupt the rest of the class. Only about a half-dozen localities have enacted such policies.

Barry's bill would require every school district to institute a minute-of-silence policy. The House eliminated a provision in his original bill that would have required teachers to announce that the minute must be used for meditation, reflection or prayer.

"That was the most objectionable part of Senator Barry's bill," said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia. However, he says he still dislikes the legislation because it will create a patchwork of silence policies across the state. "Some of those policies probably will be constitutional and some probably will not," he said.

Last week, the House Education Committee essentially gutted Barry's bill, voting to keep the minute of silence optional but authorizing the state attorney general to defend any school districts sued for exercising that option. Del. Robert F. McDonnell, R-Virginia Beach, offered the substitute bill restoring the mandate. Unlike the Barry bill, which substantially rewrote the law, McDonnell's legislation closely tracks language in the 1976 law.

"This simply expands the policy from a few jurisdictions to statewide," McDonnell said. He said Attorney General Mark Earley had advised him the legislation is constitutional. Del. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, urged his colleagues to vote for the bill. "Why in the world are we afraid of the word prayer?" he said.

No one spoke against the bill on the House floor. Willis said he was unsure whether the ACLU would challenge the legislation in court. At the very least, he said, the organization would monitor the way policies were implemented at the local level.

The legislation passed by the House retained Barry's provision requiring the attorney general to defend school boards. Earley said in a letter to McDonnell that he welcomed that duty. "As I am sure you will agree, no child should be denied this moment of silence and the chance to exercise individual choice based upon the fear of litigation," Earley wrote.

The bill states that during the daily moment of silence, "the teacher responsible for each classroom shall take care that all pupils remain seated and silent and make no distracting display to the end that each pupil may, in the exercise of his or her individual choice, meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract, or impede other pupils in the like exercise of individual choice."

Earlier yesterday, the Senate Rules Committee voted 7-4 to endorse legislation that would put Virginia on record as favoring school prayer. The resolution by Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, asks Congress to pass a constitutional amendment allowing voluntary prayer in public schools. Although such resolutions are not binding, this one generated emotional debate.

"This commonwealth was founded on bended knee," said state Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Pittsylvania, and a supporter of the measure. University of Richmond law professor Rodney Smolla acknowledged that organized school prayer was long considered constitutional, but so was racial segregation. He also said that while prayer may seem harmless to the majority, "it may be very damaging to a child who is not part of the mainstream."

Barry, still angry that professors testified against his minute-of-silence bill earlier in the session, blasted "this road show from academic elitists." He said that as a member of the Finance Committee, he might have to take another look at funding for public colleges. Smolla later told reporters he was dismayed that Barry would threaten to punish dissenters. "Citizens have a right to speak out," he said.


Area school prayer advocate praises Virginia Senate vote on "moment of silence"

Times-News Feb 7, 2000

By KEVIN CASTLE

GATE CITY : When Mike Jenkins got the news, a smile came to his face.Jenkins, who is a Gate City-based youth evangelist and an advocate for prayer in public schools, said he was pleased to hear the Virginia Senate recently passed legislation that would allow school systems to establish one minute of silence for students to pray or meditate.

"It is a great first step, especially coming out of Richmond, to establishing something very important to our public schools and that is prayer," Jenkins said. "That is what our country was founded on. I deal with students from all across this nation and I find a high percentage who pray have far less problems than the ones who don't."

The bill, introduced by Sen. Warren Barry, R-Fairfax County, passed the Senate side of the Virginia General Assembly on Feb. 1. Senate members from Southwest Virginia, including William A. Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, and Phillip Puckett, D-Lebanon, voted for the measure, which passed by a vote of 28-11.

Senate Bill 209 also states that the bill allows no other activity to take place during this one minute and that teachers are to make sure that all pupils remain seated and silent and make no distracting display. Jenkins took exception to the comments made by Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, who voted against the measure because he said he feels the prayer provision will force Christianity on children of other faiths.

"Those that want to live in a country where God is dominant and religious people are dominant, I would suggest they move to Iran," said Saslaw, who is of the Jewish faith. " would advise Mr. Saslaw to go back and look at the Declaration of Independence. There he will see that this country we live in was founded on God and on Christianity," Jenkins said.

The minute of silence, according to Jenkins, "will begin conversations among the students about their faith in God. Students who came from broken homes or had other problems dealing with their heart and mind were astoundingly effected by prayer. ... I'm not making this stuff up, I've seen it with my own eyes. "That moment can make a difference in someone who is contemplating violence or some other act. It gives them a chance to reflect and think about the circumstances."

The Virginia division of the American Civil Liberties Union has already said it plans to challenge the provision in court if the law includes "prayer" in its language. If the bill becomes law, Virginia will become the fifth state in the nation requiring a moment of silence in the classroom, joining Georgia, Alabama, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.


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