WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Tuesday that it will decide whether a state law calling for a daily "moment of silence" in the public schools violates the Constitution's ban on promoting religion.
The New Jersey law does not mention "prayer." However, two lower courts threw it out on grounds that its purpose appeared to be religious.
The high court must now decide if a law, although neutral in its language, is irrevocably tainted if legislators who supported it did so because of religious motives.
Meanwhile, the justices agreed also to try to bring some order to the messy business of parental custody fights that involve cross-state kidnapings. In agreeing to hear an appeal of a Los Angeles County man, the justices said that they would decide whether parents may go to federal court to clear up disputes among state courts over who has legal custody of a child.
The New Jersey case comes before the court with a possible procedural flaw that could abort a decision. The 1982 statute, enacted over the governor's veto, said that school districts "shall permit students to observe a one-minute period of silence to be used solely at the discretion of the individual student, before the opening exercises of each school day for quiet and private contemplation or introspection."
The next year, several parents and students, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued in federal court and obtained an order striking down the law. The judge said that the statute "had a religious and not a secular purpose." An appeals court in Philadelphia upheld that ruling. In the interim, new leaders took over the New Jersey Legislature and decided to abandon the appeal. However, attorneys representing Alan Karcher, the former Assembly Speaker, appealed to the Supreme Court.
In a brief order Tuesday, the justices said that they will first decide whether Karcher has the legal standing to continue this appeal. If so, they will then decide whether the law is constitutional (Karcher vs. May, 85-1551).
In 1962 and 1963, the Supreme Court rejected state-sponsored prayers and Bible readings in public schools. In 1984, the court threw out an Alabama law calling for a daily period set aside for "voluntary prayer and meditation," but several justices said that they would look favorably on a "straightforward" and non-religious state law calling for a daily moment of silence.
Attorneys backing the law say that it fits the court's definition of a non-religious law.
Meanwhile, the child custody case pits two parents, two conflicting state court rulings, a federal law--and one child. Congress enacted the Parental Kidnaping Prevention Act in 1980 to halt the growing number of cases in which one parent has kidnaped his child and won a custody order in a second state. The law said that the courts in the first state would have jurisdiction and said federal courts could assure this result.
David A. Thompson, a Flintridge neurosurgeon, charges that his ex-wife, who had been allowed by a California court to take their son out of the state, then won sole custody of the boy in a Louisiana court. A California court later granted custody to Thompson.
However, when he sought to appeal the issue to federal court, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said last year that he had no right under the 1980 law to sidestep the state courts. The justices said in a brief order Tuesday that they would review this ruling (Thompson vs. Thompson, 86-964).