On October 15, a panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled that Illinois’ mandatory “brief period of silence” in public schools statute was constitutional (opinion and intheiropinion). In order to reach that conclusion, the panel (Judges Ripple and Manion – Judge Williams dissented) had to conclude that the statute had a secular purpose – that is, that the Illinois legislature really intended to require a brief moment of silence every morning in every Illinois public school to calm the students. Really? Does anyone believe that?
Judge Williams in dissent said “let’s call a spade a spade – statutes like these are about prayer in schools.” Isn’t she right? There are thousands of public schools in Illinois – large and small, rural and urban – serving millions of students of varied ages, intelligences, and socio-economic backgrounds. For the past forty years, every Illinois public school teacher has had the statutory right to observe a moment of silence if he or she thought it would help calm the students. According to the majority opinion, one reason for making the period of silence mandatory was that not enough teachers were taking advantage of the opportunity. If the true purpose of the moment was to quiet students, it makes sense that some teachers in some classrooms saw no need for the moment and others did. However, if the true purpose is to make sure that every student has an opportunity to pray, a teacher’s or school district's failure to cooperate would be a concern.
In Wallace, the Supreme Court found Alabama’s moment of silence unconstitutional. But apparently the record there was replete with references to the legislators’ intent that the moment be a moment of prayer. Maybe our Illinois legislators learned a little something from their Alabama counterparts and were able to pass the statute without being so obvious about their collective intent.