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School Prayer In Virgina Schools
September 2nd 1999 10:49 P.M. EDT
Virginia school district considers Lord's Prayer, moment of silence

By Jeremy Leaming
First Amendment Center


At the suggestion of a local evangelist and his supporters, a Virginia public school board has asked the superintendent to require district schools to post the Lord's Prayer and institute a daily moment of silence.

In early August, the Appomattox County School Board instructed the superintendent of the four-school district not far from Lynchburg to create policies requiring schools to post the Lord's Prayer in classrooms and open each day with a moment of silence.

The school board's request was prompted after the Rev. Jerry Childress, a Christian fundamentalist, and 175 of his followers spoke to the board. Childress told the school board that "When they took prayer out of the school, they took God out of school" and "let Satan in."

The state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union said it would "take whatever legal action is appropriate" to prevent government-sponsored religious activity in the schools.

In a letter sent last week to Lannis Selz, chairman of the Appomattox School Board, the ACLU said it would be unconstitutional for the district to post the Lord's Prayer and to require students "to engage in a moment of silence for religious reasons."

"Over the last two centuries, our nation's highest courts have concluded that religion is best protected when government maintains neutrality toward it, taking no action either to promote or hinder it," wrote Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "This principle of separation of church and state allows individuals and families to choose their religious preferences without interference or influence from the government, and it is the reason that religious freedom thrives in our nation."

Although Virginia has a law similar to those in at least 24 other states permitting school districts to impose a moment of silence at the start of school days, Willis said that if the moment of silence were adopted to encourage religious practice, then it would be susceptible to constitutional challenge.

In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law that authorized schools to start each day with a moment "for meditation or voluntary prayer." By a 6-3 vote, the high court said the Alabama Legislature's sole purpose in enacting the statute was to promote religion. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, cited several statements from legislative records that revealed a desire to sponsor prayer in the state's public schools

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