Atheists disquieted by moment-of-silence law

Times Staff Writer

When high school freshman Dawn Sherman learned that Illinois had a new law requiring public schools to provide a moment of silence each day for “reflection and student prayer,” she was outraged.

Not because the law meant lost learning time in her honors math class -- which would be 15 seconds shorter -- but because “it was clear that we’re supposed to sit and pray, or sit and watch other people pray,” said Dawn, who is an atheist.

Along with her father, Rob, the Buffalo Grove High student has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, which some Illinois school boards have raced to embrace and others have defied.

“I don’t go to school to talk to God,” she said. “I’m in school to learn.”


The debate reflects a long-standing national fight over school prayer. The Supreme Court in 1962 ruled that official sponsorship or endorsement of prayer in schools is a violation of the 1st Amendment. Over time, state lawmakers found they were allowed to require moments of silence as long as students were not forced or encouraged to pray.

But there were limits: In the mid-1980s, an Alabama mandatory “moment of silence” law was found unconstitutional by the high court because “there was a clear legislative record that they were trying to advocate getting prayer back into schools,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington.

“Since then, legislators have been far more careful about what they’re saying about why such measures are pushed forward,” Haynes said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia also require such moments of quiet in the classroom. In more than 20 other states, teachers are allowed to decide whether they want such a classroom time-out.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman in Illinois is set to hear oral arguments early next year over whether to grant class-action status to the Shermans’ case.

In the meantime, Gettleman has ordered Township High School District 214, which oversees Buffalo Grove High, not to participate in the moment of silence. He also has barred the superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education from enforcing the rule or issuing any directive on how the issue should be handled in other schools.

Critics of such laws argue that they are a first step to threatening the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

“We heard a steady stream of complaints, from teachers to parents to students, in the days after the law went into effect,” said Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois.


“We’ve heard about a principal telling students to remember veterans in their prayers or private reflections,” she said. “We’ve heard that teachers fold their hands and bow their heads, perhaps inadvertently, but sending a message to the kids that they should be praying.”

But advocates of the laws say they give educators a tool to focus their students’ attention and provide children a chance to reflect on either personal issues or the challenges they might face that day.

“It’s certainly a student’s constitutional right to engage in silent reflection, even if it includes prayer,” said David Cortman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit Christian law firm that has filed briefs in the Sherman case. “It’s as if the mere mention of the word ‘prayer’ suddenly taints the law.”

In 2002, Illinois lawmakers passed the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act, which gave teachers the option to have a moment of silence in their classrooms as long as it was not “conducted as a religious exercise.”


The law -- which supporters and critics agree is ambiguously worded -- did not outline how compliance would be monitored, did not give school districts a way to opt out and did not specify whether they would be penalized for not participating.

As part of an effort to help teachers across Illinois gain control of their classrooms, state Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford said, lawmakers tweaked the measure’s wording. It went from saying educators “may” observe a moment of silence to saying that they “shall.”

“What’s the problem? Every single time we meet on the Senate floor, we open up the session with prayer -- whether it’s given by a rabbi, or a priest, or a Buddhist or a minister,” Lightford said.

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich vetoed the measure, citing constitutionality concerns, but lawmakers overrode him.


When the law went into effect Oct. 11, many Illinois school administrators raced to try to hash out practical issues, such as what amount of time constitutes a “moment.” Others opted to simply ignore the legislation. Last month, after failing to get a waiver from the state, Evanston-Skokie School District 65 board members agreed they would not force teachers in their schools to observe the law.

In the northwest Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove, high school officials announced they planned to follow the rules. They would set aside about 15 seconds at the beginning of third period, right after the Pledge of Allegiance, for the students to sit in silence.

“I’ve always taught my daughter that you conduct personal business on personal time and school business on school time,” said Rob Sherman, an atheist and well-known local civic activist. “I saw this as a deliberate attempt to inject student prayer back into the schools. . . . If the state’s legislators weren’t going to pay attention to the Constitution, I knew the courts would.”

Such legal tussles aren’t new to the Shermans.


Rob Sherman has used the threat of legal action to force suburban officials to pull religious symbols from city seals, has fought to remove the word “God” from public property and won a case against the Buffalo Grove Police Department over its sponsorship of a local Boy Scouts program. (He and his son, who had applied to join the local Boy Scouts Explorer post, said it was unconstitutional for the police to sponsor the group because the Scouts required a religious oath of anyone seeking to become a member.)

This fall, Dawn -- a member of Buffalo Grove High’s student council -- persuaded the school to remove “God Bless America” from its list of songs played on campus during homecoming week.

Since then, she said, she’s gotten used to critical looks and occasional hostility from her classmates and neighbors: So far this school year, her house has been egged. Crosses and religious phrases -- including “Jesus loves you,” with Jesus misspelled -- have been chalked on her family’s driveway. People driving by stick their heads out the window and holler out the lyrics to “God Bless America.”

Since the Shermans filed suit, even some of Dawn’s closest friends have started to criticize her.


“My one friend was really angry because he liked having that moment to think about his life. He’s going through a tough time. His parents are getting divorced. His brother’s not very nice to him,” Dawn said.

“It’s hard, because I understand he has rights. But so do I.”