COLUMBUS, Ohio Legislation allowing school districts to set aside a daily minute of silence for schoolchildren to pray or reflect is headed to Gov. Bob Taft.
The House passed the final version of the bill yesterday, one week after the Senate approved it. The version was a compromise between House and Senate versions of the bill sponsored by Rep. Rex Damschroder, a Republican from Fremont.
Taft has said he would sign the measure.
Originally, the House wanted to require every local school board to pass a rule mandating that students observe a daily minute of silence "for prayer, reflection or meditation" on moral, philosophical or patriotic themes. Schools also would have been required to have students recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
But the Senate, concerned about telling local school districts what to do as well as the implications of allowing prayer in schools, made the daily silent period voluntary and did not include the word "prayer." It also removed the pledge provision.
"As a compromise, we split the difference," Damschroder said.
The final version sent to Taft includes the word "prayer" and allows but does not require school districts to set aside time for the silent period.
It also includes a provision saying that schools can set aside time for the pledge, but that students are not required to participate.
Schools already legally can set aside a silent period, but many school boards and teachers are wary of doing so, Damschroder said. The legislation lets teachers know they have the state's support and approval to provide the time, he said.
Damschroder and other supporters say the state is not advocating prayer and schoolchildren can use to time to do anything they wish as long as they are quiet.
"It gives those students who want to pray, an opportunity to pray," Damschroder said.
However, critics argue that allowing prayer during public school classes threatens the Constitution's separation of church and state.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio believes the bill raises serious constitutional concerns and is not ruling out a possible lawsuit.
"The state is setting up a structure where people are expected to pray," said Raymond Vasvari, the group's legal director.
"The problem is that the voluntary aspect isn't really voluntary. Setting aside the time with a wink and a nudge is just another way to get prayer into the schools."
Joe Andrews, Taft's spokesman, said the governor's legal team will review the bill before Taft signs it.
"On its face, what we know about it now, we don't believe there's any problems with it," Andrews said.
Rep. Jim Trakas, a Republican from Independence, voted against the bill because it allows prayer.
"While this is very well-intentioned, I just feel it could go down that slippery slope that could lead to unconstitutional prayer in schools," Trakas said. "The law wasn't necessarily broke before."
He said he also is concerned that the rights of non-Christian religions could be violated.
"There's a risk that regardless of who is the majority that they can trample the rights of the minority religions, be it Hebrew prayer or Muslim prayer or whatever," he said.