The Truth, Mainly - 11/12/2001

More Options for Minute of Silence
by Leon Satterfield

I've been preoccupied lately trying to think up ways to help the folks who are all in a sweat to get prayer into public schools. Their problem, see, is that every time they come up with a really good idea, that pesky First Amendment gets in the way. You know—the one that says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Just last year, you may remember, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against public address prayers before high school football games in Texas. And back in 1985, the court struck down an Alabama law requiring a minute of silent prayer in the classroom.

Both those pieties, the court said, violated the First Amendment ban on state-sponsored religion.

But things are looking up. Virginia recently passed a law requiring all public school students to observe a minute of silence to "meditate, pray, or engage in other silent activity." And—hallelujah!—the Supreme Court two weeks ago decided to let stand a lower court ruling that the law does not violate the First Amendment.

The critical difference is that instead of coercing prayer, the new law simply lists prayer as one of three options—all silent.

So it's pretty hard for critics of school prayer to get their shorts in a knot over that. About the best they can do is wonder why we need such a law. Students have always prayed silently, meditated silently, or engaged in other silent activity. So why, the grumps wonder, pass a law allowing kids to do what there was no way of even knowing they were doing when they were doing it?

But those are the petty complaints of trouble-making malcontents.

My worry is that there's no way to guarantee that future Supreme Courts will be as enlightened as this one. So in order to First Amendment-proof Virginia's law, I offer these suggestions:

(1) Since most students don't know diddly about meditation, a future court might decide it doesn't constitute a real alternative to prayer for them. So let's have schools hire some aging hippies to show students how to meditate. Then the kids will have a ready answer when their parents ask what they learned in school today. "Om," they can say. "Om. Om. Oooommm."

(2) Because "other silent activity" is a phrase so non-specific that students seeking an alternative to prayer may be befuddled, we could hire retired English teachers to lead classes through more specific guided memory exercises: "What's your favorite sexual fantasy? Think about it now." Or "What's the most embarrassing thing you ever did? Think about it now." Or "What does it say about you that you can remember all the words to 'Casey at the Bat'? Think about it now."

(3) To make sure that students are not led to believe that the prayer option is designed to establish a particular religion (or discourage the free exercise of another), the teacher can provide a list of Deities to direct prayers toward—in alphabetical order, of course, to avoid implying that some Deities are more worthy of supplication than others. Students could pray to Ahura-Mazda, Allah, Brahma, Jehovah, Our Heavenly Father, Shang Ti, Siva, Vishna, Yahweh, Zeus—or any other Deity the student may want to speak to, including deceased pop singers.

And if a student should prefer a Specialist Deity to a Generalist Deity, the teacher might suggest some of the lesser Greek gods and goddesses: Aphrodite (goddess of love to help with those sexual fantasies), Ares (god of war to help get revenge on the class jock who calls you a wimp), Athena (goddess of wisdom to help on those ACT scores), Poseidon (god of the sea to help keep you from drowning in swimming class), Hermes (messenger god to help get that note to the other side of the room where the object of your sexual fantasies sits), Hephaestus (god of fire to help give your sanctimonious teacher a hot-foot).

And so forth.

Of course, by the time all those options get explained, the minute set aside for meditation, prayer, or other silent activity will be long past, and it will be time to get down to the business of education.

This week, we might have begun that business by looking at a statement by Salman Rushdie, the novelist the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced to death in 1989 for his impious writing.

"If terrorism is to be defeated," Rushdie concluded in a piece in the Nov. 2 NY Times, "the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries' freedom will remain a distant dream."

We could ask the students what connection they can make between Rushdies' conclusion and the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. And given the way September 11 has wonderfully concentrated the minds of us all, that might be a truly teachable moment.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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