An Illinois law mandating a period of silence in public schools does not advance or inhibit religion and is therefore constitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit reverses a district court ruling last year that struck down the law as a violation of the Establishment Clause.
"The court rightly determined that voluntary periods of silence cannot be interpreted as an establishment of religion," commented Attorney Andy Norman, whose Chicago-based law firm, Mauck & Baker, filed a friend-of-the-court with the 7th Circuit in support of the law.
"Such an accusation not only demonstrates hostility to our nation's history and heritage, but also a profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment," he added.
Since 1969, Illinois has had a statute authorizing a period of silence at the beginning of the school day. The statute stated: "In each public school classroom the teacher in charge may observe a brief period of silence with the participation of all the pupils therein assembled at the opening of every school day. 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."
In 2007, the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act was amended to make the period of silence mandatory. The words "may observe" were changed to "shall observe."
Dawn Sherman, now 17, through her father, Robert I. Sherman, sued State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch. She argued that the statute was facially unconstitutional.
The district court thereafter ruled in her favor, concluding that the statute lacked a secular purpose and had the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion by favoring religions that engage in silent prayer. The court also held that the act was unconstitutionally vague because it did not specify the length of the period of silence, how the period of silence would be implemented, or the penalty for violating the statute.
But in a 2-1 vote, the appeals court on Friday overturned the lower court ruling. The three-judge panel pointed out that the state offered a secular purpose for the statute – that the period of silence is intended to clam the students and prepare them for a day of learning.
While Sherman argued that the statute limits students to only two activities – prayer or reflection – the court noted that the text mandates only one thing – silence – and that students' thoughts are not limited during that time.
In concluded, "There is no evidence that the secular purpose is a sham and that Illinois's true purpose was to promote prayer. And there is nothing impermissible about clarifying that students may pray during that time period."
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Ann Claire Williams questioned the inclusion of the word "prayer."
"Why mention prayer at all?" she asked. "If the Act truly is meant to achieve the purpose that its sponsors claim it is – mandating a quiet, meditative time at the beginning of each school day for students to settle down and shift into learning mode – why is it necessary to reference prayer?"
Williams added that the secular purposes the state has articulated may not be "shams," but they seem to be secondary to religious purposes.
"I share the concerns raised by a number of legislators who expressed their doubts about the true purpose behind amending the Act," she stated.
Sherman plans to appeal the ruling.