This week marks the latest narrow defeat of nationwide efforts to force a “moment of silence” into the public school day. Moments of silence are already an optional element in the Illinois schools in question: teachers can currently require students to be quiet as they deem necessary. Other states, like Texas and Virginia, already have full blown mandatory moments of silence.
I essentially agree with The Friendly Atheist’s Hemant on this issue. Constitutionally, many of the more moderate “moment of silence” policies seem reasonable enough, and when they are ultimately instituted, it’s often far from disasterous or even notable. Even the ACLU doesn’t seem particularly interested in this new round of mostly secularized laws.
But it is worth briefly considering how strange the idea of an enforced moment of silence ultimately is, at least for its purported purpose of accommodating the needs of religious students.
I hope that everyone concedes from the outset that making reasonable accommodations for the needs of personal religious practice is constitutionally legitimate. Lunchrooms can offer kosher options alongside normal fare, and students can be excused from school for special religious observances as long as all students are afforded the same leeway for other needs. The problem here is simply that the claimed basis for the accommodation is utterly nonsensical. Students already have the right and the ability to pray quietly or out loud with friends anytime they want (at least when it doesn’t directly disrupt classwork). They can even tune out their teacher to pray silently during class if they so desire.
So consider this: if for some reason religious students still felt that the school day was cutting one minute too far into their dedicated prayer time, wouldn’t the most sensible accommodation policy be to start the official in-class school day… one minute later? In that case, those students who wanted to pray could do so, and with far more freedom than the “moment of silence” framework would allow. They could voluntarily pray in specific groups, out loud, dance: whatever they wanted! And those students who didn’t wish to pray could simply have one minute more for whatever activities were important to them.
In short, the idea that such laws are a necessary boon to believing students is patently ridiculous. And while moments of silence can of course appeal to people on their own merits (simply as a way to calm kids down at the start of the school day, for instance) it is a simple historical reality that movements to implement moments of silence are direct outgrowths of failed attempts to put teacher-led prayers back in public schools. This means that organizations like Concerned Women for America are being utterly disingenuous in their advocacy of this issue. Many of their early attempts to implement moments of silence explicitly admitted that their aim was to circumvent bans on officially endorsed school prayers and were struck down for that reason alone. Since then, advocates have simply learned to be more circumspect and secular in their rhetoric, but the suspicious degree of outrage from Christian Nation groups when such policies still fail to pass continues to be both notable and revealing.
At least for these groups, there is plenty of reason to suspect that their true motivation has little or nothing to do with better accommodating the needs of prayer. Instead, the aim is to make everyday silent prayers a collective activity whereby all students are unnecessarily made captive audiences. There simply isn’t a legitimate government purpose served by forcing non-praying kids to stand around every day while other students pray: they have no need to be there if they aren’t voluntarily interested in that activity. Thus, for the religious right, these silent prayer policies are basically booby prizes in the ongoing quest to return enforced prayers to schools outright.
And yet, I still can’t deny that there are legitimate secular reasons for instituting “moment” policies. I can’t get too worked up about opposing them unless they really cross the line.
It’s just that things like trying to make these policies mandatory on pain of unemployment for teachers or looking the other way when students use the time to recite organized prayers aloud abuse that good faith. “Moments” may ultimately pass constitutional muster, as irritated as their accompanying rhetoric makes me. The question then will largely be whether the public-school prayer forces will be satisfied with this privilege, or instead see it as grounds for further abuse. The last thing we need in public schools is one more tool for bullying and marking out sectarian territory.