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Federal appeals court upholds the sounds of silence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2010 - A divided federal appeals court in Chicago has upheld Illinois' Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act, requiring that public school teachers and students begin every school day with a "brief period of silence" for "silent prayer or reflection."

The court ruled 2-1 that the law did not violate the First Amendment because it was justified by the secular purpose of calming school children to prepare them for the day. The decision sets aside a federal judge's order barring the state from implementing the law on the grounds that it violated the separation between church and state.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago becomes the fourth federal appeals court to approve state moments of silence. Laws in Georgia, Texas and Virginia have been upheld. Meanwhile, another federal appeals court struck down New Jersey's law.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 25 years ago in Wallace v. Jaffree that Alabama's moment of silence law was unconstitutional because it clearly had been enacted in an effort to get prayer back into the schools. Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Lewis F. Powell Jr., who voted to strike down Alabama's law, wrote at the time that a moment of silence law could be constitutional if truly enacted for a secular purpose. With O'Connor replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, the court is even more likely to give states leeway in adopting moments of silence.

The Illinois law was challenged by Dawn Sherman, a Buffalo Grove High School student supported by her father, atheist activist Rob Sherman. The elder Sherman said he planned to appeal, although some separationists might like to keep the case away from the Supreme Court for fear of losing.

Judge Daniel Manion, an appeals judge with a conservative reputation, wrote the decision upholding the Illinois law. He was joined by Judge Kenneth F. Ripple, a Reagan appointee. Manion reasoned that the legislature could have a religious purpose as long as it also had a clear secular purpose. In this case, Manion wrote that the secular purpose of quieting students was clear and there was no evidence of a religious purpose.

But dissenting Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote, "Let's call a spade a spade -- statutes like these are about prayer in schools. In my view, the legislature's decision to make the Act mandatory represents an effort to introduce religion into Illinois public schools, couched in the 'hollow guise' of a mandated period of silence."

She noted that the law's chief sponsor, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from northern Illinois, said this to the press: "Here in the General Assembly we open every day with a prayer and Pledge of Allegiance. I don't get a choice about that. I don't see why students should have a choice."

Judge Williams also noted that "when the bill was first up for a vote, some legislators broke out into song on the House floor, singing the following words to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel's 'Sounds of Silence':

"Hello school prayer, our old friend

It's time to vote on you again

In our school house without warning

You seek a moment in the morning."

The Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, which supported Dawn Sherman, said in a statement that the law would force elementary school teachers to teach students about prayer. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan successfully defended the law in court.

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