Law & Courts

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

By Erik W. Robelen — October 18, 2007 4 min read
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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.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Moment-of-Silence’ Prompts High-Volume Debate

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