CHICAGO - Earlier this morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a divided ruling upholding Illinois' mandatory moment of silence law. The law requires all Illinois public schools to begin the school day with a moment of silence "for silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day." In January 2009, a U.S. District Court found the law to be unconstitutional. Today's ruling reverses that decision.
The following statement can be attributed to ACLU of Illinois Senior Staff Counsel Adam Schwartz:
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is disappointed that this divided appellate court panel today gave its endorsement to a statewide law that coerces children to pray in our public schools. In the words of Appellate Judge Williams' dissent from this decision:
"The Act makes what I believe to be an unnecessary reference to prayer, signaling a predominantly religious purpose to the statute. And by enumerating prayer as one of the only two specific permissible activities, the Act conveys a message that Illinois students should engage in prayer during the prescribed period as opposed to a host of other silent options."
Judge Williams also concluded the government's supposed secular purpose - calming children - was a "pretext," among other reasons because legislative sponsors equated the moment of silence in school with the prayers recited each day before the General Assembly convenes.
The appellate court's majority also ignored District Judge Gettleman's determination below that under the law, a "teacher is compelled to instruct her pupils, especially in the lower grades, about prayer and its meaning. . ." This is not the appropriate role of public schools. Beyond encouraging prayer, the law also prefers those religions that practice silent prayer over those that do not.
As the courts long have recognized, it is not the role of government (including public schools) to tell children when and how to pray. Religious exercise is a matter for students and parents, not politicians and school officials.
Even without this law, students in Illinois remain free to pray on their own, in a non-disruptive manner, throughout the school day. Public school students in Illinois do not require the permission of the General Assembly to engage in this constitutionally protected activity.