Is Silence in the Classroom Really Golden?

By Edwin C. Darden

As a society, we know that silence is golden. But is a moment of it religious?

In other words, is a mandatory “moment of silence” in public schools a mere neutral period that allows students to relax and get focused for the day ahead, or is it an invitation to pray?

That is the issue federal courts grapple with when this topic arises, which it does with some frequency. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids government entities, such as public schools, from favoring religion or prohibiting it unnecessarily. The thin line comes in instances like a moment of silence, an event that is not outwardly devotional, but is not devoid of religious connotations either.

So, courts have to resort to different techniques to discern what’s going on in a moment of silence. They look at the intent of the drafters -- whether state lawmakers or district policymakers. They look at the context of the moment of silence, how it is conducted, time of day, for how long, and how often. They look at how the district treats objectors and the climate created by students and faculty for those who do.

A January decision from Texas has resurrected the controversy. After declaring the issue “a close question” the federal district court in Dallas concluded that the state law had a secular (nonreligious) purpose and was therefore constitutional. 

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