Gov. Mike Beebe signed into law Tuesday a bill that requires all Arkansas public schools to observe a daily minute of silence to allow students to “reflect,” “pray” or “engage in a silent activity.”
House Bill 1690, now Act 576, modifies Arkansas Code Annotated 6-10-115, which previously allowed teachers to hold a moment of silence for “all students in the classroom who desire to participate,” stopping short of mandating such observations.
Sponsors of the legislation said its purpose would not be limited to prayer, but that students could use the minute to pray if they desire. The new act requires teachers to “ensure that all students remain silent and do not interfere with or distract another student during the period of silence.”
“I wrestled with the ‘may’ and the ‘shall’ because I don’t like mandates. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided that one minute was not too much to ask of our teachers to give the children,” said Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, who sponsored the legislation at the request of a constituent. Hobbs said the minute would give students “a timeout” and a break from distractions like “cell phones and texting.”
Opponents of the law and similar measures in other states have said that moments of silence could be used as backdoor ways to encourage prayer in public schools and that such measures may put unfair pressure on students who choose not to pray. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents government from passing laws designed to promote a religion.
The bill sailed through both chambers with little opposition -passing 74-4 in the House and 34-1 in the Senate.
The only senator to vote against the bill, David Johnson, D-Little Rock, said he opposed it as a “matter of conscience.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a moment of silence is used for religious purposes from time to time,” he said. “I very much believe in the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.
“Some children in some schools in some communities may have different beliefs. I don’t want those children to feel under pressure to conform.”
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, voted in favor of the bill in the Senate after opposing it in committee on the grounds it doesn’t “honor the sovereignty of the classroom.”
“There are really circumstances when that can actually be a hindrance to a class,” the former school teacher said.
In approving the measure, Arkansas joined 15 other states that mandate a moment of silence in their schools, according to a list from the National Conference of State Legislatures that was last updated in 2008. Twenty additional states allow teachers or school boards to set aside moments of silence at their own discretion, similar to Arkansas’ law prior to Act 576.
The Senate passed the bill on Thursday, shortly before leaving for the Easter weekend. Beebe added his signature five days later.
“When we have a bill with those margins of support and without any immediate constitutional concerns, he tends to sign it,” Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.
Courts have upheld other states’ “moment of silence” statutes if they had a clear, secular legislative purpose.
In the 1985 Wallace v. Jaffree case, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law that allowed teachers to hold a moment for “meditation or voluntary prayer” after reviewing a state senator’s testimony that he had “no other purpose in mind” in passing the legislation than an “effort to return voluntary prayer to our public schools … it is a beginning and a step in the right direction.”
Kristen Gould, staff attorney for the Arkansas School Boards Association, said her organization reviewed committee and floor testimony on the Arkansas bill to ensure that lawmakers did not express a religious intent.
“We listened very carefully, and we didn’t hear anything that was problematic,” she said, adding that any challenges to the law would probably occur “on the classroom level” if a teacher or school administrator “with the best intentions” misinterprets the intent of the legislation or instructs students to pray in the classroom.
“There’s just lots of opportunities for students at a very vulnerable age to accidentally be made to feel less than or other,” Gould said.
Many districts have already opted to hold moments of silence along with daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, said Trumann Superintendent Myra Graham.
“There have been no problems with it at all,” she said. “There’s no religious affiliation with it. It’s just part of our routine.”
Arkansas’ bill gained attention outside of the state Monday when the “Friendly Atheist” blog posted an e-mail from one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, to a mother who had written several lawmakers with concerns about how the legislation would affect her daughter, who does not believe in God.
“Romans 1:19-25 and Psalm 14:1 address your concerns,” Payton wrote in that e-mail, citing two verses that address disbelief. In the New International Version of the Bible, Psalm 14:1 says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”
Payton said Tuesday the e-mail was “a sarcastic and unmeasured reply, and I regret making it. But I think they’re using an 8-year-old girl as a pawn.”
The bill is “beneficial on a lot of levels other than reflection and prayer,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t force a child to pray. “I don’t believe that forced prayer is prayer.” Information for this article was contributed by Noel Oman of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.