The State of Illinois just did something I thought was unlikely to happen in a northern, solidly blue state. Almost (but not quite) under the radar, the Illinois state legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact a mandatory “moment of silence for prayer or reflection.” Illinois is not unique in having this sort of legislation. In fact, it’s becoming more and more common.
Until Thursday, October 11, an Illinois law permitted, but did not mandate, a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day. All public schools, and the students and teachers therein, will so begin their day. The law required immediate implementation by school districts across the state.
I am a religious professional. I work in a synagogue; I encourage people to pray, to find their spiritual selves and to participate in public worship services. For that is where the public act of prayer (or reflection, if you’d like) belongs.
A moment of reflection at the start of the day? Great. Wonderful. Start the morning with a little bit of “OK, now, kids…Take a deep breath and now another…close your eyes and think about what today will bring during your school hours. (Pause). Now…stretch.” A great way to start the day. No prayer; nobody’s prayer.
In my opinion, the danger with the Illinois law and others like it is the slippery slope phenomenon. A precocious first grader may ask of his or her teacher: “What does it mean to ‘reflect?’” That’s a hard concept to explain to a six year old. Even a precocious six-year old. The teacher may answer: “Well, you can pray…” “What does that mean?” “Well, I pray to God. To Jesus.” Innocent question; probably innocent answer—and all of a sudden it’s not a simple moment of silence. Six-year olds are impressionable. If Teacher prays to Jesus (or to Buddha, or to Mohammed, or to Allah…or simply to God) then our precocious six-year old (or 10-year old, or high school athlete) might be inclined to pray as the teacher does. Like I said: slippery slope.
What happens when (as it will) that little innocuous moment of silence becomes audible, especially as it might in communities where virtually everyone is of the same religious belief? Say it becomes a prayer before the weekly football game, or at the start of the morning student council meeting, or faculty meeting. Laws like this have a way of morphing into something entirely different when executed at the local level. You may reason that it doesn’t make a difference, since everyone is of the same religious stripe. Well, it does as soon as the first family (or teacher) moves into the school system. I don’t think I need to explain why.
Prayer belongs in church, in synagogue, in temple, in mosque; around the family dinner table; in the morning as you awaken, and at night before retiring. Prayer does not belong in public school. A compulsory moment of silence for prayer or reflection is a dangerous road to embark upon. I am sorely disappointed with the Illinois State Legislature for passing the law in the first place and then overriding the governor’s veto.