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Seventh Circuit Upholds Moment of Silence Law

K-12 Education Publications

Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Illinois’ Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.  The Court’s opinion finds that the Act does not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of a religion and also finds that the law is not unconstitutionally vague.  According to media reports, Rob Sherman, the parent who brought the lawsuit on behalf of his daughter, has already vowed to appeal the decision.  For the moment, this leaves the fate of the injunction against enforcing the Act in limbo, but the Court’s opinion is instructive on the issue of religion and public schools.

In 2007, the Illinois General Assembly amended the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act to mandate that teachers observe a period of silence at the beginning of each school day.  The amendment was challenged on the grounds that the law lacks a secular purpose, endorses prayer and discriminates against religions whose beliefs do not embrace the concept of momentary, silent prayer.  The second basis for the challenge was that the Act is unconstitutionally vague because it does not specify how the period of silence will be implemented or the penalties for not complying with the statute.  The federal District Court granted an injunction preventing enforcement of the Act after finding for the Plaintiff on both bases.  That decision was then appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Seventh Circuit Court opinion analyzes whether the Act violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment using “the Lemon test.”  Under the Lemon test, a statute (1) must have a secular legislative purpose; (2) its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) it must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.  The Court found that the Act meets all three requirements.

According to the Court, the Act serves the secular purpose of providing a moment of silence at the beginning of each school day to calm students and ready them for the school day.  This is not a sham reason for the Act, as the District Court had found, because the legislative history included statements from legislators indicating that the moment of silence should not be used as a religious exercise.  The Court went on to find that the facts of this case are analogous to other cases in which similar moment of silence laws were upheld in Georgia, Virginia and Texas.  Finally, the Court rejected the assertion that including the terms “Student Prayer” in the title demonstrated a legislative intent to introduce prayer into public schools because the plain language of the Act requires only silence, not prayer.

The Court’s opinion also finds that the Act meets the second and third factors of the Lemon test on similar grounds.  The primary effect of the Act is not to encourage religion since the law does not require students to think about anything in particular during the moment of silence.  And there can be no excessive entanglement with religion where the Act merely requires silence. 

As for the claim that the Act is unconstitutionally vague, the Court reasoned that the Constitution does not require exact specificity when dealing with the administration of a school.  After reviewing the school district’s plan for implementing the Act, the Court stated that any student of ordinary intelligence would understand what was expected.

If the decision is not appealed, or the U.S Supreme Court refuses to take the appeal, the injunction will be lifted and the Act will be in full force and effect.  Pending final resolution of the case and official notification that the injunction has been lifted, districts should continue with their current practices regarding the Act.