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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine