Courts Not Silent on Moments of Silence

  • April 24, 2008
  • By Jesse Merriam

In October 2007, the state of Illinois passed a law requiring its public schools to lead students each morning in a moment of silence for "reflection and student prayer." Illinois already had a law on the books permitting schools to lead such moments of silence. But the Illinois General Assembly, overriding Gov. Rod Blagojevich's veto, decided to strengthen the law by making moments of silence a requirement. Atheist Rob Sherman and his daughter, Dawn, a freshman at Buffalo Grove High School in Buffalo Grove, Ill., sued her school district, claiming that the new state requirement violated the U.S. Constitution.

Shortly thereafter, the Illinois House of Representatives voted to repeal the law so that a moment of silence would once again be permitted rather than mandated; the Illinois Senate, however, has not yet voted on the bill. Meanwhile, the U.S. District Court hearing Sherman's claim has found that the Illinois law is probably unconstitutional and thus has blocked not only her school district but all Illinois school districts from requiring a moment of silence. But this is only a temporary order; it will likely be several months before the court decides whether to invalidate the law. This will depend on whether it finds that the law is actually, not just probably, unconstitutional.

Sherman's suit is not unique. Indeed, it is one in a long line of constitutional cases over the past several years involving moment-of-silence statutes. Many states enacted this type of statute after two Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s. One of the decisions, Engel v. Vitale (1962), prohibited school-sponsored prayer in public schools; the other, Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), prohibited Bible reading in public schools. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states currently have moment-of-silence statutes - 23 permit teachers to lead a moment of silence, and 13 require a moment of silence.

Read the full analysis Courts Not Silent on Moments of Silence on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.