JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri public school children would have to observe a minute of silence in class under bills filed in Missouri's General Assembly.
Four bills -- three in the House and one in the Senate -- would allow meditation and prayer as "permissible activities" during the minute of silence.
"When prayer is left out of society, society just starts to gradually fade away and fall," said Rep. Bill Gratz, D-Jefferson City, sponsor of one of the bills.
The Missouri Catholic Conference lobbyist, Michael Hoey, testified in favor of the bill at a recent hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.
"Those bills do not mandate school prayer in any form, but just ask for a moment of silence," Hoey said.
"This release time could been purely seen in educational terms: there is a value in the students taking a moment to purge the distractions from their mind so they can concentrate on the lessons they have," Hoey concluded.
Gratz said he was inspired to sponsor the bill by comments the governor made regarding the Sept. 11th attacks. Gratz pointed to the governor's statement that directed Missourians to look to a greater power for guidance.
"Districts may allow their students to leave the school building during the school day to attend religious instruction, subject to rules governing scheduling and academic advancement," he said.
However, opposition was voiced during the committee session.
Rep. Bob Clayton, D-Hannibal and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he did not understand the necessity for release time for silence since students have an opportunity to pursue religion activities outside of school.
"Would this minute of silence be enough?" Clayton asked Gratz. "Is this going to make the world better?"
Karen Aroesty, director of a local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said she did not believe a pure moment of silence could exist and that religion does not belong in public schools.
"Children are very vulnerable, and that is one of the reasons why separation between church and state issue has been so hard fought in public schools, particularly in regard to minority religions," Aroesty said.
"As this country becomes more diverse religiously, we have to be more careful about separation of church and state," Aroesty said. "Religion has fostered very well under this separation."
Donald Meyer, member of the Saint Louis chapter of the of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also testified against this bill.
"If we want to encourage religion and government, then keep the two as far apart as possible," Meyer said. "It is totally essential to keep the mistakes of the past and we keep church and state separate."
"When Hitler became dictator, one of the first things Hitler did was to demand that all the clergy give him an oath of allegiance," Meyer added.
Meyer concluded that "those who propose this type of legislation today are ignorant of the past."
Mary Mosley, Legislative Director of the Missouri Women's Network, said her ancestors came here in the 19th century for religious freedom because they were a minority religion in Germany.
"Now I would hate to reinstitute discrimination on the bases of religion, and that is the effect that I feel that this bill might have," Mosley said.
All three House bills remain pending before the House Judiciary Committee.
It's chairman -- Ralph Monaco, D-Raytown -- said the House bill sponsored by Rep. Philip Willoughby, D-Gladstone, may be the one that has a chance to pass because its concepts do not present any constitutional problems.
The Senate bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee in late January. However, the committee chairman, Sen. Roseann Bentley, R-Springfield, has yet to report the bill to the full Senate.
Bentley said it could be a good calm, reflective time for children, but she did not want it to be religious because that would be against our constitution.
"Hopefully many of the children will think in a spiritual way about a higher being," Bentley said. "But it has to be their choice about how to use this moment of silence."
She added she does not think it would be harmful as long as "we keep the freedom of religion issue foremost in our mind."
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