‘Moment-of-Silence’ Generates Loud Debate in Illinois

Critics see new state law as move to 'sneak prayer' into public classrooms.

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Public schools in Illinois are grappling with how to go about providing a moment of silence for students each day, after the state legislature this month overrode the governor’s veto of the requirement.

Illinois joins at least nine other states that require such a moment of silence. Its new law makes mandatory what had been an option under state law that allowed teachers to start the school day with a brief period of silence.

The House on Oct. 11 voted 74-37 to override the veto delivered in August by Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich. A week earlier, the Senate voted 42-9 to do the same. The governor is a Democrat, and his party controls both houses of the legislature.

“We’re simply asking that teachers, at the beginning of their school day, take a few minutes as they see fit to encourage their students to quiet down and reflect, if you will, on the actions of the day,” Rep. William Q. Davis, a Democrat and the chief House sponsor of the bill, said in an interview last week. “The bill in no way … was an attempt to impose religion on anyone.”

But in a message accompanying his veto, Gov. Blagojevich raised concerns about the separation of church and state.

“The law in Illinois today already allows teachers and students the opportunity to take a moment for silent thought or prayer, if they chose to,” he said in a written statement. “I believe this is the right balance between the principles echoed in our constitution, and our deeply held desire to practice our faith.”

Legal Tightrope

More than half the states have laws in place that either encourage or mandate a moment of silence, and the issue has long been a tricky one legally. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1985 struck down an Alabama law that authorized a daily moment of silence specifically for meditation or voluntary prayer. In the 6-3 decision in the case, Wallace v. Jaffree, the majority said that the statute did not have a clear secular purpose, and that the record showed that legislators had had the religious intent of returning prayer to public schools.

Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in a concurrence, stressed her belief that a moment-of-silence law that did not have a primary purpose of promoting prayer might pass constitutional muster.

But in 2001, the high court declined to review the constitutionality of a Virginia law upheld by a federal appeals court that requires a daily minute of silence for public school students to “meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity.” ("Minute of Silence Stands As High Court Declines Case," Nov. 7, 2001).

“In the wake of the Jaffree case, there have been renewed efforts to pass moment-of-silence laws, … but they have been carefully crafted to avoid the problems with the Alabama legislation,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar in the Arlington, Va., office of the Nashville, Tenn.-based First Amendment Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates protection of First Amendment rights. “There really hasn’t been a successful challenge since.”

Mr. Haynes suggested that concerns educators might use such laws to promote prayer may be overblown.

“I’ve worked in hundreds of school districts over the years, and it’s just very, very rare that I hear anyone complain that a teacher is using a moment of silence to push religion,” he said.

But Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, said he sees legitimate reason for concern.

“This bill, by mandating a moment of silence, looks like an effort to sneak prayer in through the back door,” he said. “There’s no need for a formalized moment like this.”

‘A Dozen Mandates’

Michael P. Vaughan, a spokesman for the 410,000-student Chicago school system, declined last week to comment on the new law, but said the district was working to offer guidance to its schools. Before doing so, he said, the district is seeking input from groups representing those directly affected, including the teachers’ union and the principals’ association.

“Obviously, we need to send something to all of our schools to give them some sort of direction,” he said.

Benjamin S. Schwarm, an associate executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said his group wasn’t troubled by the legislation, on which it did not take a position. He said the law appears to afford districts ample flexibility and is unlikely to be too disruptive.

“We’re just amazed by the attention this bill is getting [in the media],” he said.

Mr. Schwarm pointed to other new state mandates that he argues pose far more problems, citing as examples legislation requiring defibrillators on all outdoor school playing fields and a measure requiring the use of environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

“They’re telling us what cleaning supplies … to use in your bathroom in the school district,” he said.

Research Librarian Rachael Holovach contributed to this story.

Vol. 27, Issue 09, Pages 22-23

Published in Print: October 24, 2007, as ‘Moment-of-Silence’ Prompts High-Volume Debate
Related Stories
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories





Sponsor Insights

Free Ebook: How to Implement a Coding Program in Schools

Successful Intervention Builds Student Success

Effective Ways to Support Students with Dyslexia

Stop cobbling together your EdTech

Integrate Science and ELA with Informational Text

Can self-efficacy impact growth for ELLs?

Disruptive Tech Integration for Meaningful Learning

Building Community for Social Good

5 Resources on the Power of Interoperability from Unified Edtech

New campaign for UN World Teachers Day

5 Game-Changers in Today’s Digital Learning Platforms

Hiding in Plain Sight - 7 Common Signs of Dyslexia in the Classroom

The research: Reading Benchmark Assessments

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

All Students Are Language Learners: The Imagine Learning Language Advantage™

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

How to Support All Students with Equitable Pathways

2019 K-12 Digital Content Report

3-D Learning & Assessment for K–5 Science

Climate Change, LGBTQ Issues, Politics & Race: Instructional Materials for Teaching Complex Topics

Closing the Science Achievement Gap

Evidence-based Coaching: Key Driver(s) of Scalable Improvement District-Wide

Advancing Literacy with Large Print

Research Sheds New Light on the Reading Brain

Tips for Supporting English Learners Through Personalized Approaches

Response to Intervention Centered on Student Learning

The Nonnegotiable Attributes of Effective Feedback

SEE MORE Insights >