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Court Urged to OK 'Moment of Silence' in Schools

October 07, 1987|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court was urged Tuesday to permit school classes to begin each day with a "moment of silence . . . for quiet and private contemplation or introspection."

The request--made by a group of New Jersey state legislators--addresses a gray area in the last Supreme Court ruling against school prayer, which hinted that a "moment of silence" might be legally acceptable if there was no stated religious purpose.

Issue of Legal Standing

However, the justices, in hearing arguments on the case, indicated that the New Jersey petition may not resolve the issue because of unrelated questions over the legislators' legal standing to press the action.

Nevertheless, school prayer advocates pressed the court to shed more light on the substance of the case because of the national interest in the school prayer issue.

"If there is any way to decide (this case), it ought to be done," said Rex Lee, a former U.S. solicitor general representing the legislators. A decision is expected by June.

In 1962 and 1963, the high court declared that state statutes requiring daily prayers and Bible readings in school violated the Constitution's ban on "laws respecting an establishment of religion." Two years ago, the justices, on a 6-3 vote, threw out an Alabama law calling for a moment of silence "for voluntary prayer."

Eight-Member Court

However, in that ruling, five members of the court suggested that they would approve a moment-of-silence law that had no religious purpose. Four of them are still serving on the current eight-member court.

The attorneys for the New Jersey legislators said that a 1982 statute enacted by the state Legislature provides for such a period of reflection, without any stated encouragement or requirement for students to use it for prayer.

However, both a District Court and a federal appeals court in Philadelphia declared the state law unconstitutional on grounds that it still sought to "reinject prayer into schools," said Norman Cantor, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the law.

State Wants Appeal Dropped

The legislators' legal standing in appealing the ruling came into question when the group's leader, Alan Karcher, lost his post as Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly. He originally had filed the appeal on behalf of that body. The new leaders of the Legislature, as well as the governor and attorney general, have sought to drop the appeal.

Justices indicated that they had reservations about Karcher's right to continue the case.

"We urge that the court not reach out to decide a constitutional issue when the Legislature has acquiesced in a judgment against it," said Cantor, of Trenton, N.J.

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