The Supreme Court, upholding constitutional limits on religion in the public schools, ruled today that states cannot set aside a daily "moment of silence" for the purpose of encouraging prayer in the classroom.
By a vote of 6 to 3, the justices declared that an Alabama law authorizing such moments for "meditation or voluntary prayer" violates First Amendment prohibitions against government establishment of religion.
But the court also said that a moment of silence could still be provided, giving students the opportunity to pray if they wish, under a law enacted for neutral, non-religious purposes.
"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.
The ruling came in a widely watched, politically tinged case representing the first key test of about 25 moment-of-silence statutes in 25 states, not including California. The court indicated that those laws enacted for a neutral purpose, such as meditation, would be permissible--but that those that endorsed or mentioned prayer would not.
The court stood firmly behind its controversial rulings of the past that have forbidden organized, state-sponsored vocal prayer and Bible reading in public school classrooms. Government can 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 justices focused their inquiry on the purpose behind the Alabama law. An earlier law there had provided for a one-minute moment of silence for "meditation." Then in 1981 another statute was passed--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--since struck down by the high court--was passed a year later authorizing teachers to lead "willing students" in vocal prayer.
The 1981 law was challenged in court by Ishmael Jaffree, an attorney and agnostic whose children attended public schools in Mobile. The case drew wide interest around the country, with Jaffree winning support from civil libertarians, and the Alabama law drawing support from conservative groups and some states with similar laws. Religious groups were split on the issue.
Reagan for Amendment
The Reagan Administration backed Alabama, saying the Constitution permitted 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.
Stevens' opinion was joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun and Lewis F. Powell Jr. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor concurred in the judgment.