Virginia tears down church-state wall

For thousands of years, people were obligated to attend state-sponsored churches constantly looking over their shoulder’s to make sure they were attending services sanctioned by Big Brother. In the United States after the ratification of the First Amendment’s mandate that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, the Founding Fathers assumed they had erected what Thomas Jefferson called in 1802 a wall of separation between Church and State.

However, in the home state of both Jefferson and James Madison – the author of the Bill of Rights – the Commonwealth of Virginia has placed this fundamental constitutional liberty under assault. Earlier this year the Virginia code was amended to include a law which reads in part the school board of each school division shall establish the daily observance of one minute of silence in each classroom so that students may meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity. No one harbors uncertainties, including the proponents of this statute, that this law is merely an attempt to institute prayer in schools by using the term moment of silence rather than prayer. For as Virginia Del. Lionel Spruill said in the March 7 issue of The Washington Post, Why are we trying to hide behind a moment of silence? Are we afraid to say prayer?

Feeling their fundamental constitutional liberties were being despoiled, many students protested by walking out of school during the moment of silence. In both Arlington and Fairfax counties, according to The Post, most schools simply allowed the protest. However, Potomac Falls High School did not. Rather than respect the constitutional rights of Jordan Kupersmith, a student who chose not to participate in the moment of silence, school officials decided to assign him to detention for simply disobeying an unconstitutional policy.

There is no doubt that this mandatory school prayer disguised as a moment of silence is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court already ruled in 1985 in a case called Wallace v. Jaffree that a one-minute period of silence for `voluntary meditation or prayer’ violates the so-called establishment clause of the First Amendment. In Wallace the court held that an Alabama statute authorizing a moment of silence for prayer or meditation not only a deviated from the state’s duty to maintain neutrality toward religion, but constituted a direct attempt to coerce non-believers into participation. The Virginia statute operates in the same coercive manner. Unlike the Virginia law, however, Alabama never attempted to explicitly reprimand an individual for raising objections to the state’s infringement of his civil liberties.

If anything, Potomac Falls High School should not have punished Jordan Kupersmith for his actions defending what Supreme Court Justice Jackson called the one fixed star in our constitutional constellation. In the American political system, said Justice Jackson, no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. Jordan Kupersmith recognized this principle; his school should reward him for doing so.

-The writer is a freshman.

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