ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers should delay voting for a bill to require a daily moment of silence in public schools until the courts decide the constitutionality of a similar Virginia bill, said a civil rights lobbyist Tuesday.
“They should wait and see the status before passing a bill of doubtful constitutionality,” said Mindy Binderman of the ACLU Maryland chapter. The ACLU brought suit against a similar Virginia bill and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering it.
Maryland House Bill 1156, heard before the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday, would require all public school students to take part in a minute-long moment of meditation or prayer in the beginning of the day. The bill, sponsored by Delegate Kerry Hill, D-Prince George’s, also would allow a student or teacher to read from scripture.
The bill is simply a way to promote prayer indirectly, Binderman said, and students may feel pressured to pray.
With a required moment of silence, “there is a good amount of room for coercion,” she said.
The bill passed by the Virginia General Assembly in March 2000 also required students to start the day with a moment of silence, Binderman said. The 4th Circuit is hearing the ACLU appeal of a lower court’s decision that the Virginia law is constitutionally permitted.
The Virginia law’s legislative history suggests it was clearly designed to promote prayer, Binderman said.
The Maryland bill also clearly has a religious intent, she said, based on Hill’s testimony, and legislators should wait for the Virginia ruling before voting.
With a moment of silence, students would be able to reflect and think, even daydream, first thing in the morning, Hill said.
Prayer is proven to extend life, he said, and can prevent violence in schools, referring to recent incidents and Monday’s school shooting in Santee, Calif., in which a high school student stands accused of killing two and injuring 13. The teen suspect is a former resident of Knoxville, Md.
“I guarantee what we will have today and tomorrow . . . is a moment of prayer” organized among students at the school, he said.
Prayer before a disaster would be helpful in curbing these types of incidents, he said.
Under the bill, students would not be required to pray, because that is unconstitutional, he said.
Maryland law allows schools, but does not require them, to observe a moment of silence in the beginning of the school day.