Adding legal irony to the Texas legislature’s running from education problems in the state, a federal court in Dallas upheld the state’s “moment of silence” law a few weeks ago, saying it is not an illegal establishment of religion. The fact that many or most of the students in the state refuse to follow the law earned no mention in the decision.
It’s more shooting at education and educators in the continuing War on Education.
So the law is legal, but largely unenforced, and maybe unenforceable. The law is on the books. I have yet to find a school in Texas that is ambitious about enforcing the law. A suggestion that kids should “honor a moment of silence” is often met with laughter, and generally met with conversations and actions that do anything but follow the law. The lesson the kids take away is that laws can be flouted, or maybe that they should be flouted. I’m imagining a bit — I don’t know what lesson the kids are taking away. The Texas moment of silence is not honored by students in many schools; administrators are reluctant to enforce it with any disciplinary action. Students are not learning respect for religion, nor respect for any God. Sadly, they’re not learning respect for others’ faiths, either.
Teachers are charged with assuring compliance with the law. The legislature decided not to punish students for disobeying it, but instead hold teachers responsible for making sure students obey it.
I imagine the defenders of the law, including Kelly Shackleford at Plano’s Liberty Legal Institute, think this law is a boon to faith. It seems to function much as the establishment laws in Europe, however: It discourages kids from making their faith their own, discourages an honoring of faith, and ultimately pushes kids out of the pews. Students do not think the moment is anything other than a time for prayer in my experience. Some schools get around much trouble by making the legally required minute last about 15 seconds.
There’s no law on the books that says legislators and judges must be intelligent and show common sense. One wishes they would use common sense once in a while. Mark Twain noted that God goofed in prohibiting the apple to Adam; God should have prohibited the snake, then Adam would have eaten it instead, Twain said. In this case, the legislature has prohibited talking. Guess what happens.
Plaintiffs plan to appeal according to David Wallace Croft, the chief plaintiff, at his blog. Teachers and students are stuck with the law as it is (see the actual opinion), an embarrassing moment in the day. According to an Associated Press story in the Houston Chronicle:
David and Shannon Croft filed their initial lawsuit after they said one of their children was told by an elementary schoolteacher to keep quiet because the minute is a “time for prayer.” The complaint, filed in 2006, named Gov. Rick Perry and the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, which the Crofts’ three children attended in the suburbs of Dallas.
District Judge Barbara Lynn upheld the constitutionality of the law earlier this month, concluding that “the primary effect of the statute is to institute a moment of silence, not to advance or inhibit religion.”
- Liberty Legal Institute press release on the January 4 decision
- Charles C. Haynes at the First Amendment Center urges no fighting against these laws
- “Moment of Silence” entry at Wikipedia
- Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), the case that ruled mandatory school prayers impermissible under the Establishment Clause
- Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985), the Alabama moment of silence case, in which the Supreme Court ruled Alabama’s law unconstitutional
- Text of the Texas law, below the fold
The board of trustees of each school district shall provide for the observance of one minute of silence at each school in the district following the recitation of the pledges of allegiance to the United States and Texas flags under Subsection (b). During the one-minute period, each student may, as the student chooses, reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student. Each teacher or other school employee in charge of students during that period shall ensure that each of those students remains silent and does not act in a manner that is likely to interfere with or distract another student.
Tex. Educ. Code 25.082(d).