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Out of America: Not so quiet on the Southern reflection front

ATLANTA - Barring motherhood, you might think, nothing could be less controversial in this hectic violent world than a prescribed dose of 'quiet reflection' - especially when applied at those incubators of social mayhem which are many big city schools in the United States.

You would be wrong. You would have reckoned without the struggle to keep religion out of the education system, and the latest round of that struggle in the heart of the South.

This spring, Georgia's legislature passed a law requiring state- run schools to observe a minute of silent contemplation each day. But Brian Bown, a social-studies teacher at South Gwinnett high school in Atlanta's north-eastern suburb of Snellville, refused to comply. On 22 August, the first day of the new term, during a lesson on the Reformation, the announcement of the moment's silence came over on the public address system. Mr Bown ignored it.

The next day, after the same thing happened, he walked off the job - and on to the front pages. For most people 'quiet reflection' means precisely that. For Mr Bown and many others, the phrase is a devious, potentially mortal blow to that beleaguered pillar of the US Constitution: the separation of church and state.

At the heart of the controversy is the very first line of the First Amendment, stipulating that Congress 'shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion'. The provision has splendidly fulfilled its original purpose, of preventing a newborn country from being torn apart by European-style religious wars. But in 1962, the Supreme Court issued a fateful ruling; that the ban on 'establishment of religion' meant that organised prayers in state-run public schools were unconstitutional.

In the Sixties and Seventies, there was little fuss. How different now, in a country yearning to regain old values and lost certainties. For the 'Religious Right', no goal is more important than restoring God to the curricula of the schools of white Christian America. Polls suggest two- thirds of Americans support some form of organised prayer at school.

Georgia's law escapes this rule. It was sponsored by a black state senator, David Scott, in the hope that a little more 'quiet reflection' in the classroom might lead to a little less crime on the streets. It specifies that the minute of silence 'shall not be conducted as a religious service or exercise'. But to no avail. Mr Bown, his lawyers and other custodians of the Constitution point out that a prayer does not have to be audible to qualify as a prayer.

They note that 60 seconds is time enough to recite the Lord's Prayer twice. And no matter that students may devote this interlude of contemplation to baseball or the life of Martin Luther. The ramparts of secular education are under siege: 'quiet reflection' may prove the Trojan Horse which brings down the walls from within.

Thus far, all frontal assaults have been beaten off. Take Mississippi, which tried to bypass the First Amendment with a state law allowing school prayers if they are initiated by the students and permitting 'benedictions and invocations' provided these are 'non-sectarian and non- proselytising'. The bill was directly inspired by the sacking in 1993 of a headmaster for permitting prayers on the school intercom. Across the South, he became a celebrity overnight.

Three weeks ago, a judge overturned the law on the grounds that it was too vague. But as a Mississippi legislator confessed, it would have been 'political suicide' to have voted against it.

Georgia could slip through the net, since its law does not mention the word prayer, nor those still more loaded words 'benediction' or 'proselytisation'. Almost certainly, the court battle has scarcely begun. Mr Bown is suspended on full pay, waiting to see if he is to be dismissed. If he is, anti-prayer constitutionalists will be outraged. Should he win, the religious lobby will be no less angry. So much for 'quiet reflection'. The shouting match may go all the way to the Supreme Court. It will be heard all the way to Heaven.