7th Circuit: Ill. moment-of-silence law is constitutional

Monday, October 18, 2010

CHICAGO — A federal appeals court ruled late last week that the Illinois law requiring a moment of silence in public schools is constitutional because it doesn’t specify prayer.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 15 ruled that legislators who supported the bill said the moment of reflection had a secular and practical purpose in settling down students at the start of the school day. The three-judge panel also determined that the law was “not unconstitutionally vague in all of its operations.”

The 2-1 ruling came in a lawsuit that sought to bar schools from enforcing the Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act. It was filed by talk-show host Rob Sherman, an outspoken atheist, and his daughter Dawn, a student at Buffalo Grove High School in suburban Chicago.

In filing the lawsuit, Sherman said the law indicated an “intent to force the introduction of the concept of prayer into the schools.”

The appeals panel majority, however, found that the law “serves a secular purpose and does not have the principal or primary effect of promoting religion.”

Judge Ann Claire Williams dissented, saying she believed the law made “an unnecessary reference to prayer, signaling a predominantly religious purpose to the statute.”

Calling last week’s decision an act of “judicial activism,” Sherman told the Chicago Tribune he would appeal.

As passed by the Illinois General Assembly, the law allows students to reflect on the day’s activities rather than pray if that is their choice, and defenders have said it therefore doesn’t force religion on anyone.

But in January 2009, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman upheld critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who say the law is a thinly disguised effort to bring religion into the schools.

The Illinois Family Institute, which says on its website that it seeks to “promote and defend Biblical truths” by advancing public policy initiatives, filed a friend of the court brief in support of the law.

Andy Norman, the group’s attorney, said last week’s ruling confirmed that periods of silence cannot be interpreted as an establishment of religion.

“This law connects with our nation’s heritage and a clear understanding of the First Amendment,” Norman said. “Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.”

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