According to Virginia law, a school pupil's free exercise of religion within the schools is guaranteed by one minute of silence in the school day. I'm no lawyer, but I am a pastor and a person of at least ordinary intelligence. I have a hard time seeing how a minute of silence provides such a guarantee.
Here's the code:
§ 22.1-203. Daily observance of one minute of silence.
In order that the right of every pupil to the free exercise of religion be guaranteed within the schools and that the freedom of each individual pupil be subject to the least possible pressure from the Commonwealth either to engage in, or to refrain from, religious observation on school grounds, the school board of each school division shall establish the daily observance of one minute of silence in each classroom of the division.
During such one-minute period of silence, the teacher responsible for each classroom shall take care that all pupils remain seated and silent and make no distracting display to the end that each pupil may, in the exercise of his or her individual choice, meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract, or impede other pupils in the like exercise of individual choice.
The Office of the Attorney General shall intervene and shall provide legal defense of this law.
[See also § 22.1-203.1. Student-initiated prayer; § 22.1-203.2. Guidelines for constitutional compliance for student prayer; and § 22.1-203.3. Religious viewpoint expression; student expression. Also note that the minute of silence went from being "authorized" to being mandated in 2000.]
Notwithstanding the legal language above, a moment of silence guarantees nothing but silence. I fail to see how the free exercise of one's religion is enhanced by the existence of this provision, or how it would be harmed if this provision did not exist. And absent any reference to a pedagogical, social, or psychological purpose for this silence, it seems that this code is nothing more than an attempt to institutionalize a prayer-like form in the public schools.
But there's something more troubling than simply the state requiring a prayer-like exercise in schools every morning. Indeed, whenever the state dabbles in religion it is often religion that (inadvertently, perhaps) gets the short end of the stick (see my post yesterday about how the scheduling of public school Spring Break during Holy Week limits participation in Holy Week observances). The code claims that this one minute of silence guarantees the free exercise of religion in schools by pupils. Surely a guarantee of the free exercise of religion is not anything that the state can cram into or limit to a minute of silence! The code's enshrinement of a minute of silence as a guarantee of religious exercise actually does harm to religion by suggesting – in legal code – that the free exercise of religion is something that can be protected and "guaranteed" by (and perhaps limited to?) sixty silent seconds.
Religion is not practiced only through brief silent prayers or devotional activities, as important as these are. The Christian religion, anyway, can be practiced during the school day in so many ways, including through acts of justice, a humble lifestyle showing respect for those in authority and the lowly alike, faithful service to neighbor, and dedication to one's studies. These are practices of faith that we teach in our churches. But the school, which has much more contact time with children than do most churches, perpetuates a narrow understanding of what it means to exercise one's religion through its mandated minute of silence.
I don't see why the schools need this minute of silence anyway. Surely children and families can take a moment of silence to pray or meditate at home in the mornings or on the car drive to school, in the evenings or on weekends. Why must this "need" be provided by the school system? If the free exercise of religion is not really guaranteed by this moment of silence (as noted above), and if perhaps religion is harmed by this provision (as suggested above), why have it at all?
I wish the government would stay away from prayer and prayer-like practices, recognizing that private citizens can and will engage in religious and spiritual activities in their own manner, according to their own faith, and in community with others of their choosing. We do not need the government forcing our children to observe a prayer-like activity in our public schools.