(CN) – Illinois public schools must give students a moment of silence before class each morning after the 7th Circuit reversed a lower court’s finding that the so-called “Silent Reflection Act” violated the First Amendment.
The Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act, originally called the Silent Reflection Act, gave teachers the right to conduct a period of silence at the beginning of class. It was amended in 2002 to clarify students’ right to engage in non-disruptive prayer and be free from pressure from the state to engage in or refrain from religious observance.
In 2007, the state legislature again amended the statute, making the period of silence mandatory. The amendment was vetoed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and then overridden by the state’s House and Senate.
Dawn Sherman, a student at Township High School in District 214, soon brought a class action against her district and the state Board of Education, stating the law violated her First Amendment rights.
Sherman claimed that the law lacked a secular purpose and had the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion by favoring religions that use silent prayer over those that don’t. Also, Sherman argued, the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s “overly vague” prohibition clause because it did not specify the length of the period of silence, how it would be implemented, or the penalty for violating the statute.
The law states: “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.”
An Illinois Federal Court granted summary judgment in favor of Sherman, finding that the law violated the First Amendment. The court permanently enjoined the school system from enforcing the Act.
The 7th Circuit overturned the ruling.
The court rejected Sherman’s argument that the reference to prayer as an acceptable activity during the silence showed the legislature’s true intentions. Circuit Judge Daniel Manion wrote, “In fact, listing prayer as a permissible option makes eminent sense in this case, given that [the Act] expressly states that the period of silence ‘shall not be used as a religious exercise.'”
The court also held that the Act does not favor religions which engage in silent prayer over other religions which do not because there is a valid secular purpose in maintaining silence during a designated period of silence.
The three-judge panel also rejected Sherman’s Fourteenth amendment challenge, finding that the Act was not overly vague.
Judge Ann Claire Williams dissented, writing “The Act makes what I believe to be an unnecessary reference to prayer, signaling a predominately religious purpose to the statute.”
“[L]et’s call a spade a spade – statutes like these are about prayer in schools,” Williams wrote.
The ACLU supported Sherman’s challenge to the act. The Illinois Department of Education was supported by the Alliance Defense Fund.