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'Moment of silence' bill in Nebraska Legislature spurs debate on prayer in schools

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A public hearing in the Nebraska Legislature saw opposing testimony that focused heavily on resisting calls to bring prayer into the classroom, though one lawmaker claimed the bill wouldn't do that in the first place.

The Education Committee held a public hearing Monday afternoon on three bills, the last of which, prompted the prayer debate. Introduced by state Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, the bill (LB141) would require the State Department of Education to issue guidance to schools that choose to schedule a "moment of silence" during the school day.

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Briese clarified during the hearing that the moment of silence did not equate to a moment for prayer, saying he took a "secular approach" when drafting the legislation. He also said he did not want the bill to mandate all schools add a moment of silence to their daily schedules. 

"These waters, they do have to be navigated carefully," Briese said. 

Tom Briese/MUG

Briese

Briese said he envisioned schools delegating a minute or two at the start of the school day for reflection or meditation. He said a moment of silence can set the mood for the rest of the day, promote self-control and reduce bullying. 

There isn't anything in Nebraska law stopping schools from adding a moment of silence currently. However, because there isn't state guidance on it, Briese said he believed local public schools might believe they aren't allowed to. 

Despite Briese's claims, multiple testifiers argued the bill is meant to be interpreted as a way to enforce prayer in schools. Including written testimony, two people testified in support of the bill, two were neutral and 11 people were opposed. 

Rachele Walter, president of the Lincoln Atheists, said moments of silence that are not tied to a specific event are inherently "a religious observance," and argued that students are already free to pray at all points of the school day. 

"Students are there to learn, they are not there to pray," Walter said. 

Walter and other testifiers argued that rather than discourage bullying, the bill would actually encourage bullying against students who were not religious or followed an alternative religion outside Christianity. 

Judy King, who also opposed bill (LB141), said she didn't trust the "religious right" in the Legislature to not use the legislation as an opportunity to impose religion into the classroom. 

LB141 was introduced at a time when Republicans across the country have been calling to bring prayer back into schools for at least a year. One of these Republicans is Gov. Jim Pillen, who during his gubernatorial campaign posted a Tweet calling on Nebraska to "put God back into our schools."

Though Briese described himself as a "religious prayerful guy," he said he did not support requiring schools to instill prayer in schools, and claimed his bill was not related to Pillen's campaign statement. He said such a mandate would conflict with the U.S. Constitution and would put schools into "treacherous waters."

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, a member of the Education Committee, pushed back against some of the opposition claiming LB141 promotes prayer in schools, arguing that prayer isn't in the bill's language. She argued that teachers could use the moment of silence as a helpful tool to calm down their students. 

Carina McCormick, an opponent who Albrecht was directing her comments toward, pointed out that it's important to note the difference between a timeout and a moment of silence. 

Briese responded to the criticism by saying it only reinforced the need for guidance from the State Department of Education. With a "well-designed template," Briese said schools can implement a moment of silence that avoids the concerns mentioned in the hearing. 

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