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Moment of Frivolity?

Illinois public schools get religion

Illinois Issues

February 2008

This was my contribution to a debate that has to be staged every few decades in Illinois whenever Christian mullahs attempt to compel their neighbors to improve themselves at the expense of their neighbors’ freedom. The published subtitle of this essay was, “Is government a suitable entity to compel contemplation?” The answer was, and is, hell no.

Allow me to point out again that writers seldom write the titles to their articles.

In 1870, Illinois's wise heads gathered to draw up a new and better state Constitution. One of the ways it might be better, argued one delegate, was for Bible-reading to be required in the public’s schools. He explained that the Bible—by which he meant the Christian Bible, that is the Christian Protestant Bible, which of course means the King James version of the Christian Protestant Bible—was the only book that explained why the world was as it is. Such was its wisdom that it even explained that part of the world that since 1818 had called itself Illinois.


Judge William H. Snyder of St. Clair County argued against the idea. Snyder had some personal experience with the vigor with which Illinoisans could impose their religious beliefs on others—when he was a boy, an elderly neighbor recalled for him the execution in the old French settlement of some locals for witchery. Snyder tackled what would come to be called the diversity issue head on. "Has it ever struck our protestant fellow-citizens," the grownup Snyder told his fellow delegates, "what the consequences would be, if their position and that of our Catholic countrymen were reversed, and if the Douay [version of the Bible used by Catholics] instead of the King James version of the Bible, were sought to be enforced by law upon the public schools of this State [and] were about to be impressed forever upon the young and tender minds of their darling children?"


Substitute "Hindu" or "Buddhist" or "Zoroastrian" or "Jewish" or "wiccan" or "atheist" for "Catholic" and you have the problem with the Moment phrased nicely. The Moment is that "brief period of silence" that since October has been required in Illinois public schools at the opening of every school day. Its purpose (quoting from the statute) is to give the assembled students an opportunity for "silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day." By adding the law to its books, Illinois joined the ten other states that have similar laws, which by some lights put Illinois in the bottom 20 percent of the national class.


The bill passed with veto-proof majorities in both houses, which suggests something of the ardor of the school prayer constituency in Illinois, if not necessarily its size. However, comments posted by the state's newspapers suggest that a sizable faction of Illinoisans remains convinced that a mandatory Moment is hooey. While starting their days with a ritual is unlikely to do any students any harm—most kids will use it to reflect on nothing more profound than where they mislaid their math book—a few citizens thought it might be nice for once if lawmakers limited their instructions to only what does students some good.


Which is what the many backers of the law believe it will do. Moments of silence in schools are widely accepted as surrogates for formal group prayer, and with reason. The essence of prayer is private communion with God (which of course Illinois students have always been as free to seek at school as anywhere else). Making prayer public and congregate turns it into something different, however, something more akin to a worship service—thus the liberal objections to it.


Rep. Will Davis, a Homewood Democrat and a sponsor of the new law, denied to the press that his legislation is a Trojan horse in which pro-prayer supporters are trying to sneak school prayer past the Constitution’s Supreme Court watchdogs. The denial might have carried more weight had he not named his bill the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act and if (as some state lawmakers reported) the only people who lobbied them for it were not preachers, priests, and rabbis. By pretending that it is not about prayer, the sponsors render their bill and themselves dishonest—a fault we are used to in our lawmakers but ought not to accept in our laws.


Critics are obliged to assume that the law is meant as a prelude to state-sanctioned school prayer because otherwise the law has no point at all. Maywood’s Democratic state Sen. Kimberly Lightford justified it by her hope that the Moment could provide children with a chance to wrestle with difficult personal issues such as abuse or bullying; that view was echoed by Davis, who suggested the Moment might prevent Columbine-type school shootings.


Alas, such outbursts are anything but impulsive. Such bloodshed almost always follows upon, and is to some extent a product of, an excess of reflection—what we used to call brooding. Legislation to compel schools to stop kids abusing or bullying each other in ways that excite revenge might have addressed that very real problem more usefully than a Moment, but since we are leaving most other aspects of growing up to the kids, why not this?


Look at the legislature itself. There is evidence that taking a moment for reflection works only if the reflector is capable of it. The General Assembly already starts its days with a prayer, but members plainly didn’t pray for wisdom, or I’m sure they couldn’t have voted this shoddy bill into law. The statute mandates the Moment but provides no penalties for noncompliance. Our apprentice Illinoisans might well ask themselves why, if the Moment is so important that the State of Illinois demands that schools do it, the state imposes no penalty on schools if they don’t, and puzzle over whether this law is nonsense or the idea of Laws is nonsense. Sadly, they are likely to decide that both are true.


Nor does the statute specify how brief a brief period can be and still satisfy its requirements. The State Board of Education has failed to provide school administrators—perhaps one should say "avoided providing"—specific guidelines as to length. Evanston Township High School District 202's superintendent told local reporters that in the absence of state advice on the matter, the district turned to its lawyers. They calculated that the balance point between pleasing the state and cheating the children is ten seconds. Many systems—Springfield School District 186 is one—opted for 15 to 20 seconds. Very few districts require a "moment" as long as a minute.


Even one minute is too long in the opinion of critics who attacked it on the grounds that the State of Illinois had no business micro-managing its public classrooms when its legislators can’t even get their own homework done on time. Moments multiplied by hundreds over the school year add up to real time—as many as 15 hours of teaching time in a year in which kids get too little teaching already.


The General Assembly, like a kid who assumes Mom will pick up his dirty socks, leaves such muddle to the courts to sort out. Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the bill back in August, on grounds that it likely violates the constitutional prohibition on state-supported religion. The trouble is that legislators are not great respecters of constitutions, even their own. According to Article X of the Illinois Constitution, "The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education," a responsibility it has never discharged. Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, suggested to his fellow members that kids could use the Moment to pray that the General Assembly finally sends them the money they need.


The Moment might succumb to judicial challenge on account of its vagueness, although similarly worded statutes in other states have passed constitutional muster on separation grounds. It might also be rendered moot by further action of the General Assembly. A bill to that effect has already been introduced that would make the Moment optional and remove from the law the words "student prayer," which is the bone most likely to stick in the throats of justices reviewing the law for constitutionality.


Ultimately the responsibility for clarifying what role, if any, even quasi-religious ritual should play in public schools rests with citizens. The equation worked out long ago by the likes of Judge Snyder somehow needs to be relearned by every generation: In a nation in which most religions insist that theirs is the Only Way, any expression of religious faith, however innocuous it seems to the believer, will intrude upon the sensibilities of those many who do not share it. The only way to legislate social peace in such a place—and Illinois and the United States are such places and will remain so in spite of the efforts of evangelicals of all faiths to change it—is to not legislate for religion at all.


As a means to elevate religion, the Moment seems not very intelligently designed. Turning prayerful reflection into a meaningless ritual demeans religion rather than elevates it. The silence law will not accustom schoolchildren to prayer who are not already accustomed to it. It may however accustom them to state compulsion. The government that compels the dishonest today can compel the dangerous tomorrow. In which case we’d all better pray. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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