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.