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Minute of silence in Virginia allowed by high court to stand

WASHINGTON (BP)–A Virginia law requiring public schools to observe a minute of silence each day will remain in effect after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will not review a lower-court decision in the case.

The high court’s Oct. 29 action permitted a July opinion of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to stand. A panel of the circuit court ruled the law, which allows students to pray during the minute of silence, was not a violation of the First Amendment prohibition on establishing religion. That opinion affirmed a federal judge’s decision.

The law, enacted last year, mandates schools establish a minute each day in which students may “meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract or impede” other students. Eight families, with the support of the ACLU, filed suit against the state.

In October 2000, a federal court upheld the law, saying it passed the Supreme Court’s 1971 three-part Lemon test, because it “was enacted for a secular purpose, does not advance or inhibit religion, nor is there excessive entanglement with religion.”

In upholding the lower court, the Fourth Circuit’s opinion said the “short period of quiet serves the religious interests of those students who wish to pray silently [and] it serves the secular interests of those who do not wish to do so. Because the state imposes no substantive requirement during the silence, it is not religiously coercive.”

The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the decision is “proper and sound,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which helped Virginia defend the law. “With the Supreme Court staying on the sidelines, and a highly publicized law from Virginia being held constitutional, it will be no surprise if other states follow the lead of Virginia and adopt similar measures for their own school districts that meet the constitutional standards that exist in the Virginia law.”

Stuart Newberger, a lawyer for the families challenging the law, told The Washington Post, “This is going to embolden certain teachers, certain administrators and certain student groups to say, ‘We can do more.’ … I think this is going to open the door to all kinds of abuse.”

Because the Supreme Court failed to act on the appeal, the law is binding only in the Fourth Circuit, which consists of Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia, as well as Virginia.

The case was Brown v. Gilmore.

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