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A moment of silence is the expression for a period of silent contemplation, prayer, reflection, or meditation. Similar to flying a flag at half-mast, a moment of silence is often a gesture of respect, particularly in mourning for those who have recently died or as part of a commemoration ceremony of a tragic historical event.

Many people in western countries observe a moment of silence, often 2 minutes, at 11 AM on November 11 each year (Remembrance Day) to remember sacrifices of members of the armed forces and of civilians in times of war.

One minute is a common length of time for the commemoration, though other periods of time may be chosen, normally connected in some way with the event being commemorated (there might be a minute given for every death commemorated, for example). During the moment of silence, participants may typically bow their heads, remove hats, and refrain from speaking or moving places for the duration. A person officiating or presiding over the gathering will be responsible for the declaring and timing of the period of silence.

A moment of silence may be accompanied by other acts of symbolic significance, such as the tolling of bells, the release of doves or balloons, or a performance of the Last Post.

In recent years a trend has developed (particularly with British sports fans) to fill the traditional minute of silence with a minute's applause. Psychologically this is seen by some to convey a fond celebration of the deceased rather than the traditional solemnity. Recent recipients of the minute's applause include deceased footballers Jock Stein, George Best, Ernie Cooksey, and Alan Ball. The death of Ray Gravell, former Llanelli rugby club president and Welsh international, was also marked in this way at various rugby grounds in the UK. It is frequently alleged that the predominant reason for the minute's applause tending to replace the minute's silence is out of fear that opposition fans will not respect the silence, and spend their time booing, jeering or otherwise attempting to disrupt it; many silences have been cut short from the usual minute to thirty seconds or less for this reason.

Legal issues in the United States

The U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker ruled in 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, that official organization, sponsorship, or endorsement of school prayer is forbidden by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in public school. Teachers and school officials may not lead classes in prayer, but prayer is permitted at voluntary religious clubs, and students are not forbidden from praying themselves. Other rulings have forbidden public, organized prayer at school assemblies, sporting events, and similar school-sponsored activities.

Public moments of silence in the United Statesmarker both arise from and contribute to this debate over prayer, and the separation of church and state. A moment of silence lacks any specific religious formulation, and therefore it has been presented as a way of creating reflection and respect without endorsing any particular sect. Colin Powell, a long time advocate, has recommended a simple moment of silence at the start of each school day. Further, he states that students could use this interval to pray, meditate, contemplate or study.

However, critics often view the moment of silence as publicly endorsing prayer "in disguise." This issue has been especially raised by atheists , who argue that no non-religious purpose is served by designating an official moment of silence . They point out, for example, that many schools have entire class periods dedicated to silent study, which can equally be used for silent prayer or meditation.

Although since 1976 the state Virginiamarker law permitted school districts to implement 60 seconds of silence at the start of each school day, in 1985, the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker ruled that an Alabamamarker "moment of silence" law was unconstitutional, in the case Wallace v. Jaffree. In April 2000, a new law came into being; requiring all Virginian public school students to observe a moment of silence. Also, in 2005, a law was passed in Indianamarker requiring all public schools to give students a chance to say the pledge of allegiance and observe a moment of silence every day. In October 2007, Illinois enacted legislation to require public schools to provide students with a moment of silence at the start of the school day, a statute that is currently being challenged in Illinois state courts. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia also require such moments of quiet in the classroom. In more than 20 other states, teachers are allowed to decide whether they want such a classroom time-out.

In October 2000, the U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled that the "moment of silence" law was constitutional. Judge Hilton stated, "The court finds that the Commonwealth's daily observance of one minute of silence act is constitutional. The act was enacted for a secular purpose, does not advance or inhibit religion, nor is there excessive entanglement with religion... Students may think as they wish -- and this thinking can be purely religious in nature or purely secular in nature. All that is required is that they sit silently." His ruling was upheld in the 4th circuitmarker.

The American Civil Liberties Union has long opposed the observance of this type of moment of silence.

The United States Congress observed a moment of silence for Michael Jackson after his death on June 25.

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