WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, reasserting the ban on state-sponsored prayer in the public schools, ruled Tuesday that a formal "moment of silence" in the classroom may not be set aside for the purpose of encouraging students to pray.
By a vote of 6 to 3, the court declared that an Alabama law authorizing a daily minute-long moment for silent "meditation or voluntary prayer" violated First Amendment prohibitions against government establishment of religion.
But the justices said also that a moment of silence in the schools still could be lawfully provided--giving students the opportunity to pray, meditate or reflect as they wish--under a statute enacted for a neutral, non-religious purpose.
"The legislative intent (of the Alabama law) to return prayer to the public schools is, of course, quite different from merely protecting every student's right to engage in voluntary prayer during an appropriate moment of silence during the (school) day," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.
Politically Tinged Case
The ruling was issued in a widely watched, politically tinged case representing the first key test of moment-of-silence statutes in 25 states, not including California. The court indicated that those laws enacted for a neutral purpose, such as meditation or reflection, are permissible--but those that specifically endorse prayer or are intended to promote religion are not permissible.
The court stood firmly behind its controversial rulings of the past that have forbidden organized, state-sponsored vocal prayer and Bible reading in the public school classroom. Government may neither approve nor disapprove religion--but must remain neutral--the court stressed. "The individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all," Stevens wrote.
The decision drew widespread reaction, and some authorities predicted that pressure may mount on states and localities to enact moment-of-silence laws that could pass court requirements by being neutral on religion.
Backers of such laws contend that some existing state statutes could meet constitutional requirements--and that others could be amended, deleting references to prayer.
But some lawyers said it may be difficult to convince a court that a moment-of-silence law--even one worded in neutral terms--is not actually intended to serve a religious purpose. Courts, in weighing the intent of legislation, may consider official remarks made by legislators as part of the "legislative history" of a bill. And any pro-religion commentary on a bill could be cited as evidence of the real aim of its sponsors.
Tuesday's ruling was the most significant to date in a series of cases on the court's docket raising questions of the separation of church and state. Other cases due for resolution before the court adjourns this summer involve the permissible limits of government aid to religious schools and the authority of states to require that employers make special accommodations for the religious practices of their workers.
In the moment-of-silence case, the justices focused their inquiry on the purpose behind the Alabama law. An earlier law there had provided for teachers to announce a one-minute moment of silence for the purpose of "meditation." Then, in 1981, another statute was enacted--the one at issue in this case--authorizing such a period for "meditation or voluntary prayer."
The second law, its legislative sponsor said, was intended to "accomplish the return of voluntary prayer in our public schools and return to the basic moral fiber." A third law--already struck down by the high court--was enacted a year later authorizing teachers to lead "willing students" in vocal prayer.
Challenge by Agnostic
The 1981 law was challenged in court by Ishmael Jaffree, an attorney and agnostic whose children attended public schools in Mobile. A federal court of appeals in Atlanta struck the law down as unconstitutional.
The case drew interest across the nation, with Jaffree winning support from civil libertarians and the Alabama law drawing support from conservative organizations and some states with similar laws. Religious groups were split on the issue.
The Reagan Administration backed Alabama, saying that the Constitution permits such statutes as a means of accommodating religion in a neutral, non-coercive way. President Reagan has endorsed calls for a constitutional amendment that would permit prayer in the schools.
In their ruling (Wallace vs. Jaffree, 83-812), the justices concluded that Alabama's purpose was to "convey a message" that the state was endorsing prayer as a "favored practice."
"Such an endorsement is not consistent with the established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion," Stevens wrote.