Moment-of-silence legislation is riddle to many

Sunday, April 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma House has taken a strong stand for ``silent'' prayer in schools, but sponsors of a moment-of-silence bill are concerned their efforts may be in vain.

House members voted 98-0 last week for an amended Senate bill that directed Oklahoma schools to observe a moment of silence in which students ``may, in the exercise of individual choice, meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity.''

The next day, the Senate rejected the House amendments, meaning the bill's fate will be determined in a joint House-Senate conference committee.

``I'm not sure the Senate is sincere and is willing to do a decent bill,'' said Rep. Russ Roach, D-Tulsa.

The language placed in the Senate bill by Roach replicated an earlier House-passed measure that died when the Senate Education Committee did not hear it.

As it came to the House, Senate Bill 815, by Sen. Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo, does not mention prayer in calling for schools to observe ``approximately one minute of silence'' each day.

For the most part, debate on both houses has skipped over the prayer-in-school issue.

Roach said his bill is patterned after a Virginia law that drew objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, but was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Michael Camfield, spokesman for the ACLU chapter in Oklahoma, said his organization did not like the idea of government designating a time for prayer and said he feared overzealous educators could wind up forcing student participation.

``This is really about gaining some quick political points for some politicians,'' he said.

Roach defended using the word ``pray'' in the House bill.

``We might as well be honest,'' he said, adding that the legislation does not require prayer by anyone.

``In this day and age, with all the hustle and bustle and tension and pressure that comes from society, to have a moment to think about the day, to think about what our role is in life and what life if all about, is not bad,'' Roach said.

``If someone wants to pray, fine,'' he added. ``That is their right. If they don't want to pray, I very strongly believe in that right.''

Rep. Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, sees a moment of silence as ``a small step to give students who want to pray the opportunity to do that.''

``In our zeal not to establish a state church, we have stomped on the right of God-fearing Americans to engage in any kind of public religious activity,'' he said.

The legislation sent to conference also authorizes school boards to post the U.S. motto ``In God We Trust'' or other historical documents, including George Washington's farewell address, Patrick Henry's ``Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death'' speech and Martin Luther King Jr.'s ``I Have a Dream'' speech.

So far, most of the public questioning of the bill by lawmakers has focused on one questions: is it really needed?

Several lawmakers, including Rep. M.C. Leist, D-Morris, and Sen. Bernest Cain, D-Oklahoma City, have argued that schools already can have a moment of silence.

Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Oklahoma City, a former longtime elementary school teacher, said the legislation is a sign of the times.

She recalled recent legislation authorizing ``character education'' in school, something she said she thought she had always taught.

``Then there was legislation to say that teachers could have students say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. That's something I had been doing for almost 30 years, but now attorneys were saying we had better get permission to do that.''

She also remembered periodically asking students to take a moment to think, reflect or perhaps pray about a particular event.

When Gov. Frank Keating was inaugurated in 1995 after winning his first term, Wilcoxson said her students were watching on television when a prayer was offered during the ceremony.

``I told everyone, let's all be quiet so we can pray with the minister, not knowing I was breaking the law,'' she said.