Opponents cry out over Silent Reflection Act ruling

By Eleanor Blick

Media coverage of the Illinois court case Sherman v. Koch repeatedly referred to the act in question as the “Silent Reflection Act.” Buffalo Grove High School student Dawn Sherman and her father, Robert Sherman, brought the case against State Board of Education Superintendent Christopher Koch in 2007. The Shermans argued the period of silence observed at the start of public school days was unconstitutional because it encouraged school prayer.

Initially, the case sounded surprising. Defenders of the act said students could use the time to reflect on the day’s activities, meditate, read, do homework or silently pray if they choose.  A moment to relax and reflect at the beginning of the school day sounds reasonable. But opponents argued the act encouraged student prayer in schools, thus violating the First  Amendment. Turning the concept of “silent reflection” into “student prayer” seemed like a stretch.

Only by examining the original language of the act does the opposition’s argument become clear. The full title is the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.” Well, yes, that’s a problem.

The act’s verbiage is its main downfall. If the title of the act did not mention prayer, fewer eyebrows would be raised. If the act didn’t specifically suggest time could be used for prayer, there would also be less outrage.

Illinois has had a statute in effect since 1969 that allowed teachers to observe a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day if they choose. The original law was written in clear terms that allowed choices for students and teachers, thus establishing its constitutionality under the First Amendment.

However, the statute has seen several revisions since. In 1990, the title was changed to The Silent Reflection Act, as part of a measure that shortened the titles of hundreds of statutes. A section added in 2003 established a student’s right to exercise his or her religion regardless of the teacher’s choice to observe a silent period. The name was changed back to The Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.

In early 2007, section I was amended to read “shall observe” rather than “may observe.” The court changed the language in order to mandate observing a moment of silence at the beginning of the day in all public schools.

If this act were truly The Silent Reflection Act, the mere suggestion of prayer would not be included. The legislation cannot remain secular if it suggests the practice of a non-secular tradition. Furthermore, it indoctrinates impressionable students by enforcing a ritual rooted in religion.

The law, as it was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals on Oct. 15, reads “In each public school classroom the teacher in charge shall observe a brief period of silence with the participation of all the pupils therein assembled at the opening of every school day. This period shall not be conducted as a religious exercise but shall be an opportunity for silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day.”

In a public school, students must be allowed as much right to practice a religion as they are allowed not to practice. But enforcing a daily ritual that stems from religious traditions of habitual prayer is a detriment to the standards of the

First Amendment.

The U.S. District Court ruled the law violated the first and second prongs of the Lemon test established through Lemon v. Kurtzman, which created guidelines for legislation involving religion. If any of the three prongs are violated, the statute

is unconstitutional.

Under the Lemon test, the district court ruled the government’s action did not have a secular purpose, and the statute’s primary effect was advancing religion in schools. But the appellate court, made up of three Notre Dame graduates appointed by Ronald Reagan, overturned that ruling.

Although teachers can no longer control whether to hold the silent period, they can control the classroom subjects covered that follow it. Take charge of the law by creating a dialogue from it. Silent reflection can transition into classroom discussions about how students choose to use the time. Study a different religion every week, read a different religion’s prayer every day. Use the law’s subversive message against it by studying all the different ways students can choose to be silent. Then, they will understand how to use their silence to its full potential.