Prayer optional, silence required, lawmakers say

October 12, 2007

SPRINGFIELD

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State lawmakers moved Illinois to the forefront of the national school-prayer debate Thursday, requiring public schools to provide students with a brief moment of silence at the start of classes.

The House joined the Senate in voting to override Gov. Rod Blagojevich's veto of legislation mandating the period for "silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day."

The governor had said he believes in the "power of prayer" but worried the law could erode the barrier between church and state.

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"This was never about trying to require prayer in the schools," said Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood), a lead sponsor of the new law. "This is a way for teachers and students to [start] their day off in the right way."

Legal experts said the law, which turns the moment of silence from an option to a requirement, is likely to survive any constitutional challenges. But educators predicted there will be huge problems in enforcing the mandate because teachers and other administrators will have to sort out how to deal with students who ignore it. The law does not contain any penalties for non-compliance.

The law takes effect immediately, and school districts will get a notice from the State Board of Education shortly, a spokesman said.

In Chicago, that would be a big change because administrators know of no schools currently setting aside time for silent meditation.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory school prayer in 1962, about three dozen states have passed legislation authorizing school districts to set aside up to five minutes of quiet time at the beginning of the school day. The big battle in most states has been over what students are supposed to do during that time. In Alabama, the courts struck down a law because legislators made it clear they wanted the time used exclusively for prayer and not other options such as using the time for silent meditation or reflection.

To avoid legal problems, most states have been moving to a "a neutral moment of silence" that has been upheld by the courts, said Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C., group. "We don't like them, but generally speaking the courts are more receptive to that idea."

In 2000, a U.S. District Court upheld a Virginia law that required all public schools to observe a moment of silence. Eleven states make such moments mandatory, while 23 others leave the decision to students, teachers and local school boards.

Illinois jumped on the bandwagon in 2002 with a law that allowed for a moment of silence but did not require it.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said she sought to make the moment mandatory this year after visiting schools in her district and finding that some teachers provided students with a moment of school silence and some didn't.

Perhaps to avoid court battles, supporters of the measure tiptoed around the topic of school prayer, raising defenses that clearly rankled critics who see the new law as a way to sneak state-sanctioned prayer back into public schools.

Lightford said the quiet time at the beginning of a school day could provide children with a chance to wrestle with difficult personal issues such as abuse or bullying. She and another lawmaker suggested students might even summon the courage to stop another student from rash or violent acts, such as this week's school shooting in Cleveland.

In House debate, Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), a sponsor of the proposal and a former educator, said children are bombarded with too much noise in society.

"But do they ever have a moment of silence to reflect, to listen to the rustling of the leaves, to listen to the chirping of a bird?" she asked.

Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who voted against the measure, said the only people who lobbied him on the bill were preachers, priests and rabbis.

"This doesn't mandate school prayer, but let's face it -- that's what this is about," Lang said.

Many clergy members welcomed the move.

"We support the wholesome value of time to pause and reflect each day as a matter of good hygiene," said Wayne Miller, Lutheran bishop for Chicago.

But the notion of a mandate did not sit well with other religious leaders, including those who approved of the general intent.

"There are too many things that people are trying to mandate for us, and I think that being allowed to practice our own spirituality when we want to, in our own setting, is more important," said Asayo Horibe, president of the Buddhist Council of the Midwest.

Local school officials were divided. Michael Vaughn, Chicago Public Schools spokesman, said the district took no position on the law but is committed to figuring out the best way to comply and to "make sure that we are sensitive."

Michael Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said he foresees conflicts popping up all over the state as schools start implementing the new law, which is expected to happen in the next few weeks.

"If a student decides not to observe it, does that mean the teacher can take action against the student?" Johnson said. Eventually, Johnson predicted, disputes will wind up in court when some school district tries to suspend a student who disobeyed the mandate.

Kitty Ryan, an assistant superintendent for Naperville School District 203, said the district has never told students they couldn't pray silently but has been careful never to endorse a certain religion.

"I'm thinking about a 1st-grade teacher with a room full of students. ... She's going to be wondering 'What exactly am I supposed to be telling these little guys to be thinking about?'" Ryan said.

Other educators questioned lawmakers' priorities, noting that the House, which voted 74-37 to override, has yet to send schools all the money they are entitled to under the recently approved budget.

"We already have the ability to have a moment of silence," said Don Schlomann, superintendent of St. Charles schools.

"I wish they would focus on the things they haven't finished."

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The new state law

"In each public school classroom the teacher in charge shall observe a brief period of silence with the participation of all the pupils therein assembled at the opening of every school day. This period shall not be conducted as a religious exercise but shall be an opportunity for silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day."

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rlong@tribune.com

jmeitrodt@tribune.com

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