PRAYER in schools is a public topic again after a Georgia high- school teacher refused to observe a new state law mandating a ``moment of quiet reflection'' at the start of school. Brian Bown, feeling the new law is an attempt to reverse or subvert the 1962 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting organized prayer in public schools, talked during the ``moment'' and was suspended by school officials. The American Civil Liberties Union backs Mr. Bown's challenge that the moment is unconstitutional.
We support the separation of church and state, and the 1962 Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court ruling; and we certainly do not want the kind of sectarian government-administered audible prayer that the high court abolished to be reimposed. The question is, does an open-ended ``quiet moment'' violate the intent of the 1962 ruling? In that case, a non-denominational prayer written for the New York public schools was opposed as an unconstitutional establishment of religion by Justice Hugo Black, and as a divisive element in the community by Justice William O. Douglas.
Such grave issues don't seem at stake in this case. We may feel ambivalent about mandating a ``moment of silence.'' But if Georgia wants its schools to observe such a moment prior to class, that seems fair and can even be constructive as a disciplined way to focus and quiet thought, or allow for further school preparation.
A moment of silence seems like neutral ground. If handled with dignity it can promote tolerance and respect for diverse views - something worth teaching children. The state senator who proposed the silence says he did so to combat the mentality leading to violence in schools.
What deserves attention in the current cultural climate is that the 1962 ruling was not intended to be ``anti-religion.'' It was anti-establishment. One notes a 1992 opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy arguing that separation, carried to an extreme, doesn't promote government neutrality toward religion but ``reflects an unjustified hostility toward religion.'' The problems of intolerance and dogma are not those of one special ideology.
In one sense, we do ardently support prayer in the schools! We also support prayer in the workplace, the sports arena, the bus line, the state legislature. The quiet individual appeal to a divine source of intelligence and guidance is greatly needed and is protected as a matter of free exercise of religion in the First Amendment.