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The Illinois Moment of Silence Law: An Update

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About a month ago, the Illinois State Legislature overrode a veto by Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich to enact the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act. The law requires every student and every teacher in every Illinois public school to begin the day with a “moment of silence” to be dedicated for “prayer or reflection.” I thought it might be time to update my original column.

Full disclosure: I am opposed to this law. I do not believe anyone should be mandated to pray, and yes, I do know that the law says “prayer or reflection.” The fact is that it’s a fine, fine line between “everyone keep quiet for a minute to start your day right” to “let’s all take a moment to pray.” In the northern suburbs of Chicago, where I have lived my whole life, that distinction is pretty clear. A teacher even hinting that children should “pray” in a public school setting would be met with outrage; however, the fact is that in more homogeneous (and likely Christian) communities downstate, the line between reflection and prayer might be easily blurred. The less diverse the community, I suspect, the more likely it is that this could happen. Prayer might well be encouraged with little or no dissent (or even community-wide support) and suddenly (but not really) beginning the morning with school (albeit silent) prayer becomes de facto school district policy. Do I sound paranoid? I’m not. And believe me, it’s happened, and will happen and happen more. Slippery slopes are very, very slippery and it’s not very easy to climb up again.

Anyway. Legendary (at least in our area) atheist Rob Sherman lives in my school district. His daughter attends a neighboring high school. Mr. Sherman filed for an injunction to put a halt to the law while it is being contested in the courts. That injunction was denied. So, last week our school district ruled that each morning right after the pledge of allegiance (don’t get me started on that one) the students will take a 15-second pause for “reflection.” The letter from the school district never mentioned the prayer part. Good for them. But not great.

Not all school districts have decided to play along. An elementary school district in the Skokie-Evanston (District 65) area has decided to ignore the law, defying the mandate. They bravely declined to issue the directive to the schools and teachers. Bravo for them. That will be interesting to follow.

So, what has been the reaction to this in the schools among the kids and their teachers? One group of high school students in a nearby district staged a walkout during the district’s required 15 seconds; those kids got a real life lesson in civil disobedience and got sentenced to Saturday detention. Some individual teachers in another nearby high school have done the same, choosing to leave their classroom, rather than enforce this thinly veiled attempt to insert prayer into public school. And don’t tell me that my statement isn’t true, and that it isn’t the real motivation for this law.

If the motive was more along the lines of “the children will benefit from that bit of space before the chaos of the school day,” the law’s language would not read “shall be an opportunity for silent prayer or for silent reflection.” It would simply say “reflection.” That and the primacy of the word prayer are fairly easy “tells” to this non-poker player. And if it’s not the motivation, why mandate it? Why require it? Why not leave the law as it was before the legislature tampered with it? The law originally allowed a moment for silent reflection using the language, “may observe.” So why mandate it?

As for my own high school kid (and he, like his parents, is fairly observant of his religion)? Up until now, his teacher has not enforced the silence, but she has warned that she’ll have to, starting quite soon. My son plans on leaving the room. Not because he doesn’t want to pray (this is a kid who chose to take the PSAT exam three days early to avoid breaking the Sabbath), but because this law is flat out wrong. Right now he’s taking AP US History. And getting a real life lesson.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • http://www.elitebloggers.com Dave Nalle

    I find even mandating a moment of silence offensive. Amazing that this should pass in a relatively liberal state like Illinois.

    Dave

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    I completely agree with you Dave. This law is being challenged via several avenues. Unfortunately similarly worded laws have passed court tests. The folks behind these “moment of silence laws” have done their homework and having been defeated by the courts with more overt language, have learned that this one seems to work.

    It seems like many school districts in Illinois are very unhappy not only with the law, but the lack of direction from the state board of education on implementing it. I wish more districts had done what District 65 did by ignoring the law (which will undoubtably also land in court). By taking the stand that our district did by defining “moment” as a minimal 15 seconds, it legitimizes the law when it should be challenged.

    Barbara

  • http://adreamersholiday.blogspot.com Lee Richards

    Let’s see now:

    In some U.S. school districts 50% of the students drop-out before graduating;

    Many kids in grades 1-12 can’t read on grade level;

    We trail other nations badly in math and science scores;

    Many studies have shown a widespread ignorance about geography, history and civics;

    Local, state and national spending on schools is enormous;

    Almost every school has problems to a greater or lesser degree with drugs, violence, cheating, discipline, pregnancy, racism, absenteeism, etc.

    So, why then are local or state school boards and legislators devoting large amounts of time, energy, and resources to instituting and promoting a questionable moment of silence to begin the school day, instead of actually doing something to improve education? Could it be they want to set us against one another to direct attention away from a badly mismanaged educational system?

    It’s the equivalent of a lawyer who has no case just pounding on the table, in the hopes no one will notice his incompetence. (And there really are some advocates of a Christian theocracy out there who will take whatever small steps they can and use the system in any way to move us toward that goal.)

    Why can’t kids and teachers pray in school if they want to? They can, and always have been able to. They can quietly pray, reflect, daydream, read the Bible or Quran wherever they choose, school included.

    Such state mandates offer nothing we don’t already have. What they do impose upon us by requiring time be set aside for such activities is a thinly-veiled govenmental attempt to influence and control individual freedom of conscience and thought, which should be wholly outside their business of education.

  • http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3827/is_199912/ai_n8877756 Baronius

    Barbara, you don’t sound paranoid. You do sound bigoted against those undiverse Christians downstate. Perhaps I’m bigoted against Chicagoans, but your anti-downstate feelings seem pretty common among Chicagoans I’ve known.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    Barbara, you don’t sound paranoid. You do sound bigoted against those undiverse Christians downstate. Perhaps I’m bigoted against Chicagoans, but your anti-downstate feelings seem pretty common among Chicagoans I’ve known.

    Baronius, this has nothing to do with Chicago vs. downstate sensibilities. It has everything to do with the separation of church and state. The mandated-nature of this law takes it to that level.

    Update: A judge issued an injunction against the statute yesterday. The injunction applies only to school district 214 (my home high school district, actually)as the suit filed by Rob Sherman (another suit) lives in our district. The matter will be taken up today once again to determine if the injunction should be expanded state wide, pending a federal court fight. Stay tuned.

    Barbara

  • Howard Bowen

    Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. This is a commandment in the Holy Bible. Jesus is the source of unbounded love. God created human beings as sinners, and offers people redemption for sin through The Lord Jesus. People, as the single outstanding exception to all the world, are created “in his image”. One aspect of this is explained in scripture by revealing that the usual truth about people who ignore God is that they get ignored in return. That bearing, according to scripture, is not the case with the figure of the Apostle Paul. Paul, before his encounter with God, was Saul, a ferocious patrician who hunted, persecuted and slayed Christians. God’s name, prior to seeking his creation as Jesus, the Christ who is the personage of God, whom he ordained people to crucify, was Jehovah. It is at the time of the Christ that God changed his covenant with people, part of which instructs us to seek the love of Jesus. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, goes hand in hand with another promise, “seek and you will find”. In other words: seek the love of The Lord Jesus, and redemption from sin, and salvation of your soul, and the comfort of Jesus. According to the trinity it is God in Jesus who is the savior of humanity, not our government. God, as Jehovah, has written he will allow people to perish as the leaves on the trees if his wrath is conjured. Scripture states that the information outlined in the Gospel is the responsibility of the teachers and leaders of a community, and family, to teach to the children. The schools teach competition, which essentially is the defeat of one for the gain of the other. Television teaches violence, greed, lust and narcissism, as it comes as the powerful dominion of the establishment. Is it justifiable to teach children that the solution to the strife and tribulation which results from these human qualities is more government and more money? There is certain danger in teaching the hierarchy of mankind only goes up as high as the top level OF this world. IN this world is a phenomenon that cannot be seen by some of the most violent criminals, all the way up the ladder to the most powerful figures in business and government. The children should be taught truth, and allowed to consider the avenue on which to obtain, and secure truth.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx gonzo marx

    Howard sez – “Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. This is a commandment in the Holy Bible”

    excuse me? i have seen the Ten Commandments from Jes, Roman Catholics and Protestants…in none of those versions is what you cite

    this factual inaccuracy is carried on in various places throughout the comment and thus is rendered both semantically and logically null and void

    Excelsior?

  • http://theugliestamerican.blogspot.com Andy Marsh

    Maybe someone can explain to me why those schools where prayer IS mandated have such higher graduation rates and higher rates of kids continuing there educations?

    I know I’m going to hear…or read as the case may be…that it’s because when parents fork out the money they’re more involved…maybe so..maybe not, I knew plenty of kids when I was in one of thes prayer mandated schools growing up, whose parents could give a hoot about their grades…

    When I was a kid in private school, there were always to many kids in the class…so it can’t be overcrowding…the text books were always outdated…so it can’t be the material…

    I’m not saying that it was prayer…or marching down to church every first Friday…actually, I think it was the threat of violence…not from my parents…although they would have added to it…but from the teachers.

    So, I say, to hell with prayer…let’s bring back corporal punishment!!!

    I suppose I should also say, my daughters are out of school now…so it’s YOUR kids that I’m all for beating…not mine!

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    Howard sez – “Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. This is a commandment in the Holy Bible”

    excuse me? i have seen the Ten Commandments from Jes, Roman Catholics and Protestants…in none of those versions is what you cite

    this factual inaccuracy is carried on in various places throughout the comment and thus is rendered both semantically and logically null and void

    Actually it’s in Deuteronomy. And part of one of the central themes in Judaism. But the way in which one loves God with “all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might,” is a matter of action and not as much to with Jesus as how you act as a person. But all of this is beside the point. As Howard said:

    The children should be taught truth, and allowed to consider the avenue on which to obtain, and secure truth.

    My question is (and it’s rhetorical)–whose truth? Christian truth? Muslim truth? But I would believe that you would only answer that there is but one truth–yours. The seperation of church and state is so essential because no one philosophy or religion has an exclusive on truth. And that is the point.

  • Erin

    People not from Illinois don’t understand that Illinois is NOT a liberal state. CHICAGO is a liberal city, and seeing as how we hold onto the majority of the population, and the areas around us are fairly liberal as well, when it comes time to vote, we carry it.

    Once you leave the big city, however, the political opinions are DRASTICALLY different. I’m only 17, and I have realized this first hand. Southern Illinois and Western Illinois are like mini bible belts. Chicago is the most liberal chunk of the state, everywhere else contains the hardcore bible thumpers.

  • http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3827/is_199912/ai_n8877756 Baronius

    Barbara, that’s why I don’t see a problem with a moment of silence. Unless your religious practice demands noise, a moment of silence is entirely open to any faith.

    Andy, I know what you mean. We had rules and morality and good education, then we had none of them. It makes you wonder if rules and morality have something to do with education.

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    Baronius:

    Moment of silence = ok, maybe.

    Moment of silence mandated by a legislature = very definitely not ok

    Surely you agree?

  • Baronius

    Of course not! First of all, this is the internet; this is no place for agreement. Secondly, what’s not ok about it? It doesn’t establish religion. It doesn’t require prayer. It requires a moment of silence.

    I really don’t see how this could be unconstitutional. If the teacher keeps quiet, and the students aren’t talking, there’s no shared prayer. No peer pressure to pray. Look at it realistically – the only thing I ever did in homeroom was think about girls. If this policy were in place in my school days, I would have had a quiet moment to think about girls. That’s it.

    I’m no theocrat, believe me. If this looks like creeping theocracy to you, everything must look like creeping theocracy to you. Ask yourself, if it weren’t for the people who scare you, is there anything in this bill that would cause you concern?

  • Zedd

    Lee

    I’d have to say that the kids are not failing and experiencing everything else that you mentioned because of the actions or inactions of the school district or its officials. Its the parents. Its the homes.

    I am not offended by a moment of reflection. I actually think it is a good thing. In the time of “ADD” and 12hr work days and being constantly plugged in, I think that it is a valuable thing to impart to children. Why shouldn’t the school teach contemplation? The kids certainly cant be doing drugs or whatever else during that moment.

    I am against the time being referred to as prayer time. I think that a person who is raised to pray, will use it to pray as they are always in a state of prayer.

  • Zedd

    handy / Baronius,

    Would calling it a “moment of calm” help you? Why are you against a moment of silence being mandated for children in school? Why is contemplation bad for a mind that is being educated?

    Gentlemen it is school. A place for learning. A place where deliberation and calm are called for. It is not a social event lest we forget. A moment of reflection is primo and instills something that we forgot that we can do, THINK.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    Baronius–it’s the mandated nature of the law that is bothersome and the use of the word “prayer.” To me that’s a non-starter. I don’t have a problem with prayer in school. In private school, that is. It gave me no greater pleasure last spring than to see my son on a high school semester in Israel, standing on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, in the middle of a school field trip praying the afternoon prayers. But that’s sort of the point. It was a private school, teaching religious values to which we subscribed. We were fine with it and delighted to participate in his prayer services. Prayer does not belong in the language of a law dealing with public school instruction. Period.

    Barbara

  • http://adreamersholiday.blogspot.com Lee Richards

    Legislators can’t figure out how to:

    Fix bridges, build enough roads, balance budgets, keep track of illegals, fund state universities, control drugs, improve air and water quality, fight crime, etc., etc.

    These are the things they are elected to do, not provide spiritual guidance to a diverse school population.

    And their goal through such legislation, I believe, is not just a moment of reflection, introspection, or preparation. It is of course unstated but seems clear that what they really seek is mandated time for prayer–Christian prayer. That’s what their supporters believe in and what such laws are meant to encourage. You can’t require such prayers be repeated in school anymore, but you can try to slip it in.

    I’m all for anyone praying who wants too, at any appropriate time, although I tend to be highly suspicious of those who always want others to notice how devout they are. I’m also all for keeping government’s disguised promotion of any one faith out of schools and separate from what belongs in the church, home, and heart.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx gonzo marx

    “Prayer does not belong in the language of a law dealing with public school instruction. Period.”

    Quoted for Truth

    Excelsior?

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx gonzo marx

    sorry i missed comment #9

    Barbara..i know similar sentiments exist in both OT and NT…my point was it’s not in any Commandments

    it’s misnaming and conflating that messes up when a lot of folks try and cite Scriptural references as justifications, imo

    hope that helps

    Excelsior?

  • http:// Baronius

    The word “prayer” in “prayer or reflection” seems to bother you. You’re missing the importance of the word “or”. “Prayer or reflection” matches the perfect balance of the First Amendment: it doesn’t establish a religion; at the same time, it doesn’t prevent any. You guys keep seeing theocrats hiding under the bed, but if you look at what this law says, there’s nothing harmful.

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    Mr B:
    I believe you are playing the devil’s advocate, so to speak. You’re enough of a libertarian not to want the government demanding that you or your kids do anything, much less something as obviously contentious as this. The intentions of the lawmakers are pretty clear to everyone else, if not to you. “Looking for theocrats under the bed”? Unbelievably silly thing to say.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx gonzo marx

    but where else do you keep your theocrats?

    i mean, i filled the closet with Craig and some of his “buddies” …

    ah well, Cuisinart makes bone meal

    Excelsior?

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    I understand Larry Craig was a very popular ‘costume’ at gay gatherings this Halloween.

    I prefer my theocrats out in the open…they should be seen but not heard [fat chance].

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx gonzo marx

    can’t hear ya over the woodchipper, handy

    what was that again?

    Excelsior?

  • http:// Baronius

    My libertarian instinct says to do away with the public school system entirely. My more domesticated side says that if something isn’t unconstitutional, it’s allowed.

  • http://www.myspace.com/thereverendspadgedooley The Reverend Spadge Dooley

    Way hay!

    You have made of the American constitution a veritable bible… A holy text and words that are writ and cannot be altered and, now you do the angels dancing on the heads of pins thing with it.

    Just a thought.

  • Carly

    The moment of silence is not a get around way to add prayer in schools. Students are constantly bombarded with noise; whether it be music, cars, teachers, parents, friends, televisions. To give them a few moments of peace in a busy day is not unconstitutional. It is simply silence. Teachers demand silence of their classes constantly and are never questioned as to their constitutionality. Students, in fact have the right to pray, as protected by the constitution, not taken away by it. During silence a student may pray, reflect, talk to themselves, meditate, or whatever they please. If they choose to pray they can pray to Baal, Buddha, Muhammad, God, whatever god they choose. THis law is religiously neutral and great way to give students a break in the middle of a day jam packed with sports, friends, and homework. I don’t see what the big deal is. I think those opposed to it are afraid of Christians getting a hold of the world and taking it over!!!! AHH!! I mean come on. Realistic? I think not. If that is your view of Christians, get to a know a true Christian. You just might change your mind. Whether you do or not, silence is not a Christian doctrine. Silence is universal and for everyone!! Thats quite a liberal viewpoint if you ask me…

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Unconstitutional? Possibly not.

    But why legislate it?

  • superfastdork

    I don’t think this is right because religion isn’t supposed to be at public schools anyway. Even if it is not religion, there is no point to pray in school when you have churches to go to. And there is no point to reflect on the day in the morning.