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TEA Correspondence

A Microsoft Word version of this letter is available for download and PRINTING.

October 10, 2006

TO THE ADMINISTRATOR ADDRESSED:

Re: School Day; Pledges of Allegiance; Minute of Silence

This letter is to remind you of certain statutory requirements regarding the school day. Under Section 25.082(b) of the Texas Education Code, the board of trustees of each school district must require students to recite the pledges of allegiance to the United States and Texas flags once during each school day. On the written request of a student’s parent or guardian, a school district shall excuse the student from reciting a pledge of allegiance pursuant to Section 25.082(c).

Also, the board of trustees of each school district must provide for the observance of one minute of silence at each school in the district following the recitation of the pledges of allegiance. Pursuant to Section 25.082(d), each individual student may choose to use the minute of silence to “reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student.” The statute requires that each teacher or other school employee in charge of students during the minute of silence ensure that each student remains silent and does not act in a manner that is likely to interfere with or distract another student.

The moment of silence statute was passed to encourage thoughtful contemplation at the start of the school day, to promote patriotism through the students’ quiet reflection following the pledges of allegiance, and to protect individual religious freedom. Each of these separate purposes independently undergirds the statute.

By beginning each day with a moment of quiet contemplation, the statute promotes a sense of calm and civility among the schoolchildren. That calm moment can then enhance concentration, allow students to peacefully collect their thoughts, and serve to decrease student stress. Particularly in this age where students are confronted regularly with images of violence and disorder, a quiet moment underscores the importance of the learning process on which the students are about to embark by adding an air of solemnity, which can also foster classroom discipline.

Moreover, the moment of silence directly follows the recitation of the pledges of allegiance to the United States and Texas flags, which allows students the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices that allow us to live in freedom. Quietly contemplating our nation’s heritage, and the lives of the men and women who have died to ensure our liberty, in turn promotes patriotism, which is a longstanding objective of the Texas curriculum. Thus, Texas Education Code § 28.002(h) provides that “[a] primary purpose of the public school curriculum is to prepare thoughtful, active citizens who understand the importance of patriotism and can function productively in a free enterprise society with appreciation for the basic democratic values of our state and national heritage.”

Finally, the statute protects individual religious liberty. Although the law neither encourages nor discourages any particular silent, non-distracting activity, it does provide several examples of acceptable activity: reflection, prayer, and meditation. The mention of prayer in this context as an example merely indicates that praying is one option among many that an individual student may deem appropriate for this silent time. Its inclusion as one of the permissible options reflects the State’s neutrality towards prayer; indeed, to deliberately exclude prayer from the specified options permissible during this time of silence would reflect a hostility to religious faith that is incompatible with the U.S. and Texas Constitution’s protections of religious liberty.

Texas law protects the individual religious liberty and freedom of conscience of every Texas child. Texas Education Code § 25.901 explicitly provides that “A public school student has an absolute right to individually, voluntarily, and silently pray or meditate in school in a manner that does not disrupt the instructional or other activities of the school. A person may not require, encourage, or coerce a student to engage in or refrain from such prayer or meditation during any school activity.”

In accordance with these statutory directives, teachers and administrators should neither encourage nor discourage students from choosing on their own to pray during this moment of silence. Any prayer, however, must be silent. Neither students nor teachers may pray, meditate, or reflect audibly during the moment of silence. Not only would outloud prayer violate the statutory mandate that students must remain silent, but it might also have the improper effect of coercing others to join in a group exercise. The moment of silence is not to be conducted as a religious service or exercise; rather, it is simply an opportunity for quiet reflection.

Teachers and administrators should not exhort students to pray, favor students who pray, or disfavor students who do not pray. Neither should teachers discourage students from praying, favor students who do not pray, or disfavor students who do pray. Each individual student must choose, without pressure from peers, superiors, or government, how to use this time meaningfully in a way that accords with the statute and with his or her values.

I sincerely appreciate your attention to these mandatory provisions relating to the school day. If you have questions regarding this statute, please contact the Division of Legal Services at (512) 463-9720.

Sincerely,

Shirley Neeley

1 Under no circumstances should a teacher begin the moment of silence with phrases such as “let us pray,” end the moment with phrases such as “amen,” or solicit prayer requests before the moment of silence.

2 The Supreme Court of the United States has held that coercing students to pray is unconstitutional. See Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577(1993) (finding that a graduation prayer was unconstitutional because it was directed by state officials and students were for all intents and purposes obligated to participate); Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000) (finding a practice of voiced student-led, student-initiated prayer before football games unconstitutional because the prayer occurred pursuant to a school policy explicitly encouraging public prayer and because participation in that religious ritual had a coercive effect on the students). Thus, it is critically important that teachers and administrators follow these guidelines to ensure that students do not feel any pressure to use the moment of silence in a religious manner. Just as importantly, however, teachers and administrators should not do anything to indicate that a religious use of the moment of silence would be inappropriate. The Constitution requires that public schools maintain neutrality toward religion.

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