Public schools across the state await an appellate decision on whether they must reinstate the controversial moment of silence at the beginning of each school day. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is grappling with the decision to uphold the district court’s opinion that held it unconstitutional.
In the meantime, lawmakers are struggling to pass a new bill that will stand up to future challenges. Illinois is just one of 30 states to have passed a moment of silence law. In Texas and Virginia, those laws were challenged but upheld. But in Illinois, Judge Robert W. Gettleman found the law promoted prayer in schools and was illegal.
Attorneys on Feb. 10 faced off in a packed courtroom, with the state arguing the law is critical because it helps students focus and critics arguing the law crosses the boundary between church and state.
Assistant Illinois Attorney General Rachel Murphy argued on behalf of all school districts in Illinois. Murphy defended the Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act, which requires that students begin the school day with a silent prayer or reflection on the upcoming activities of the day.
Students are given choices under the law, and now children who were otherwise afraid to pray can do so, said Murphy.
“The law is mandatory so all students have the opportunity to reflect on whatever they wish,” Murphy said.
Robert Sherman, a former radio talk show host and self-proclaimed atheist, sued in October 2007 once the law became mandatory. Sherman’s daughter, Dawn, was a freshman at Buffalo Grove High School, where the moment of silence was in effect for a month before the court granted an injunction preventing schools from participating.
Sherman said his daughter doesn’t need to waste valuable school time when she’s competing with other students to get into college.
“Dawn’s in honors AP and ranks 15 out of 498 students,” said Sherman. “Dawn is told by the general assembly to stand for a moment of silence; it’s not fair to Dawn.”
Students can pray before or after school and the law puts pressure on children to pray during school, argued Sherman’s attorney, Richard Grossman.
“These are impressionable children of a tender age and tend to find teachers to be authoritative and we have teachers encouraging students to pray,” Grossman said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued the law discriminates against students. ACLU attorney Adam Schwartz objected to the word “prayer” being mentioned at all.
“As soon as there’s a prayer option, it encourages students to pray,” said Schwartz. “It sorts all religions into winners and losers and some religious traditions can’t be accommodated by a moment of silence. It’s stigmatizing.”
Teachers in Chicago have refrained from instituting the moment of silence and won’t act until the court decides, said Rosemaria Genova, spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union.
Rep. William Davis (D-East Hazel Crest), who co-sponsored the controversial bill, said while he wanted to ensure a moment of silence was mandatory, the law does not require students to pray. He said students participate in other activities to help them focus on their studies and aren’t targeted in the same way.
“I just saw on the news a teacher doing yoga with students after lunch as a way for the students to focus,” said Davis. “Like that teacher, our sole purpose was to calm students down.”
Davis agreed the more expedient way would be to see what other states have done and mirror their language, but he said he will wait to see what the court decides. The great thing about the legislature is there is always another legislative session to change the law, Davis said.
Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago) introduced an amendment in January 2009 that removed the word “prayer” and replaced it with “silent reflection” and “silent meditation.” Although it passed the House, Fritchey’s chief of staff, Dave Kornecki, said it has been sitting on a shelf because it hit a roadblock in the Senate.
“It’s being held hostage in the Senate,” said Kornecki. “There’s full support in the House, and the intent of Rep. Fritchey is still there to get the bill passed.”