Moment of Frivolity?
Illinois public schools get religion
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. ●
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