Is This Just a New Way to Get Prayer Inside Schools?

A bill that would mandate a moment of silence to ‘reflect, pray, or engage in other quiet activity’ is on the table in Arkansas.

Prayer in school has been the subject of major debates for decades. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Taking a moment of silence might soon become a mandatory activity for kids in Arkansas.

A bill currently in the legislature, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Debra Hobbs, would give students a mandatory time to reflect, pray, or engage in other quiet activity in order to prepare for the school day.

Prayer was added in the language, so if a student chooses to pray, 'the teacher can't say 'Oh you can't pray in school,' " Hobb said to a local TV station.

It's long been the argument of progressives that a teacher rarely tells students they cannot silently pray, so is this just a sly way to slide prayer back into schools?

The U.S. Department of Education has guidelines that state, "If a school has a 'minute of silence' or other quiet periods during the school day, students are free to pray silently, or not to pray, during these periods of time. Teachers and other school employees may neither encourage nor discourage students from praying during such time periods."

Also, Arkansas already has a statue on the books that allows a teacher or district board of directors to have a brief period of silence at the start of each day with the participation of all students who desire to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More than 30 other states also have laws that allow moments of silence before the school day.

Rita Sklar, the executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the ACLU, testified against the bill on Wednesday in a Senate committee. She told TakePart when the original law was enacted, a teacher in Little Rock told students to take a moment of silence "to pray."

"It's a bad bill because it can mislead teachers into thinking that prayer is permissible," Sklar said. "We want to protect liberty rights of students and there's no reason to change the law the way it is."

Legal scholars have noted that the school prayer movement, which escalated in the 1980s, often used moments of silence as a proven strategy to keep prayer alive in schools. And regardless of the court rulings that have come down on the issue, such bills like the one in Arkansas have continually worked their way through statehouses.

The Texas legislature amended the Texas Education Code, taking a previously optional moment of silence and making it mandatory in 2003. The bill also altered "reflect or meditate" to include "reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student."

When a similar bill popped up in Illinois years ago, opponents sung Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" with the following lines, "Hello, school prayer, our old friend. It's time to vote on you again."

LeeWood Thomas, an Arkansas activist who monitors separation of church and state bills, said, "Let the people, children included, decide for themselves when to pray, or take a moment of silence. It's not as if a teacher is going to stop them from doing so on their own."

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