School prayer by any other name?

School prayer by any other name?

Karen Frantz

OH, WHAT A DIFFERENCE a moment can make. Or not.

This past October Illinois became the latest of several states to impose a moment of silence in public schools. The new law, known as the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act, mandated a previously optional period of silence at the beginning of each school day. Hailed as a badly needed respite for bombarded kids by supporters but decried as a nefarious way to inject religion in public schools by opponents, Illinois’ moment of silence has opened a huge can of church-state separation worms.

The moment of silence, as defined by the Illinois law, allows “an opportunity for silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day.” It also takes pains to point out that the moment “shall not be conducted as a religious exercise.” Smart thinking of Illinois lawmakers to include this stipulation given that the Supreme Court struck down mandatory school prayer in 1962. Telling kids to pray in school might be, you know, slightly unconstitutional. And, in fact, at the time of writing, an Illinois federal district court had blocked a Chicago school district from enforcing the law, and a statewide ban was in consideration.

Part of the problem is that there is no uniform statewide provision for how the law is implemented; each district is free to work out on its own when the moment will be observed and for how long. (Thus, rather than spending their time considering ways to improve students’ scores on dreaded standardized tests, school boards now get to spend a good chunk of time debating how long a “moment” should be. Ten seconds? Not enough; who can fit quality reflection in such a short window? A full minute? Too long; kids don’t have that many thoughts.) Also up to districts and teachers–and more problematic–is how they direct students to use the time. Students could be told they’re free to use the moment to gather their thoughts, think about world events, or, yeah, pray.

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And there’s the rub–as ridiculous as it is to waste tax dollars and valuable public servants’ time on hashing out the fine details on yet another pointless government mandate, whether or not moments of silence pose a problem for church-state separation depends upon implementation. Silent student prayer in school is perfectly legal as long as it isn’t disruptive or somehow hinders other students’ right not to pray. Moreover, laws providing students quiet time to pray, though they can be dicey, have generally been upheld in court as long as they have a secular dual purpose–allowing for both meditation and prayer, for example. But it’s when teachers are a little too “nudge-nudge” in suggesting how their students use their silent time–if they say it’s time for a moment of silence and then cross themselves and bow their heads, for example–that problems arise.

However, despite valid concerns it seems that a majority of schools in Illinois have been implementing the policy in a proper manner. In fact, most teachers have been avoiding the term “prayer” in the classrooms altogether, lest they face costly lawsuits. And even those supporters who clearly hope students will utilize the moment for silent prayer (which is likely anyone in the Illinois legislature who voted for the law–why else would the word prayer be included in the law’s title?) are playing up the moment’s secular purpose, sometimes to levels of absurdity. Representative Will Davis (D-Homewood), for example, was actually audacious enough to suggest that the moment of silence could prevent school shootings by giving wayward students time to reflect. (He’s really banking a lot on a couple seconds of reflection. Why not up the ante and mandate an entire hour of silent reflection–think of what social ills we could fix! In fact, let’s impose it on Congress, too, and maybe we’ll avoid the next preemptive war.)

A panacea for school violence the moment of silence certainly is not. However–as long as it’s conducted the right way–nor is it the mandated school prayer that some fear. Most likely some students will use the moment to recite a silent prayer, some will use it to gather their thoughts and prepare for the day, and the vast majority won’t give it much thought at all. Thus it avoids a sticky church-state entanglement but fails to actually do much of anything else. Proving, once again, that government-run schools should probably just stick to their fine–and very secular–purpose: education. Our nation’s dismal test scores prove they don’t really have a moment to waste.

Karen Frantz is the policy and advocacy associate at the American Humanist Association.

COPYRIGHT 2008 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning