The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an atheist lawsuit whose objective was to prohibit Illinois students from observing a “moment of silence” at the beginning of the school day.
Buffalo Grove High School student Dawn Sherman, the daughter of well-known atheist Rob Sherman, brought the lawsuit saying that the mandatory “moment of silence” interfered with her schoolwork and learning opportunities.
In 2007, the Illinois legislature amended a bill that mandated a “brief moment of silence” for reflection or prayer at the beginning of each school day.
After Sherman filed suit, a district court judge ruled the Illinois law was unconstitutional, saying it endorsed prayer and religion in schools. As a result, the judge issued an injunction in the case and the schools stopped the practice.
However, on appeal the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling by a vote of 2-1. “Nothing in the text … limits student’s thoughts during the period of silence; the text mandates only one thing – silence,” the court said its decision.
As a result, the 10- to 15-second “moment of silence” was reinstated several months after the district court decision was overturned.
Other states have implemented similar policies. Virginia students are given an opportunity each morning to “establish daily moments of silence for mediation, prayer or other silent activity” each day. Alabama once had a law that authorized teachers to lead a minute of prayer, but a similar lawsuit and eventual Supreme Court ruling found its law unconstitutional.
The issue of prayer in school was first brought to light in 1962 when the Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale, ruled it was unconstitutional for school officials to compose a prayer and require that students read it in classrooms or over the school public address system.
Joe Bain taught over 40 years in Tennessee public schools.
“I remember well when the Supreme Court ruling came down in the early sixties,” Bain recalled. “But we always got around it by having giving the student council control of the announcements every morning. No one required anyone to do or say anything and someone prayed over the intercom each morning until I retired in the early 1990s. To my knowledge, no one ever complained but I guess times are different now.”
In a related case, the Pittsylvania County, Va., has filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to prohibit prayer before the start of each Board of Supervisors meeting.
Tim Barber, who chairs the board said in the motion, “The Board of Supervisors is standing up for what is right and it is time for the American public to stand up against groups like the ACLU that want to tear down the very foundations this great country was built on.”
“In my opinion, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors is absolutely correct in its stance on this prayer issue and I am proud of the board as a whole.”