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Fifth Circuit rules Texas school ‘moment of silence’ law constitutional
Fifth Circuit rules Texas school ‘moment of silence’ law constitutional

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] on Monday upheld [opinion, PDF] the constitutionality of a Texas law mandating daily observance of a minute of silence in public schools. The three-judge panel affirmed the ruling of the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas that deemed constitutional the 2003 amendments to § 25.0821 of the Texas Educational Code [text, PDF] which provide for the enforcement of a minute of silence during which prayer is an enumerated suggested activity. The appellants argued that the statute has a religious purpose, pointing to legislative history including a statement by a legislator about the lack of school prayer. The Fifth Circuit applied the standard set forth by the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman [opinion text] to find that as long as the statute serves a plausible secular purpose, it does not violate the Establishment clause and an individual legislator's religious motivation for supporting the statute does not alter its constitutionality:

[O]ur review of legislative history is deferential, and such deference leads to an adequate secular purpose in this case. While we cannot allow a "sham" legislative purpose, we should generally defer to the stated legislative intent. Here, that intent was to promote patriotism and allow for a moment of quiet contemplation. These are valid secular purposes, and are not outweighed by limited legislative history showing that some legislators may have been motivated by religion.

In reaching its decision, the Fifth Circuit analogized to other circuits that have held similar moment of silence statutes constitutional if their provisions legitimately served a dual secular and religious purpose.

The use of prayer, moments of silence, or religious references in public schools has been highly contested. In January, an Illinois District court held that that an Illinois state law requiring a moment of silence in public schools is unconstitutional [JURIST report]. In July, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld [JURIST report] part of a Florida law that requires students in grades kindergarten through 12 to obtain parental permission before they can be excused from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance [JURIST news archive]. In 2005, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled [JURIST report] that the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools with the language "under God" is unconstitutional.