Can public schools provide a moment of silence at the start of each day? Can state law mention that silent prayer might be one use a student would choose to use that time for?
Recently the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit answered yes to both questions. Two judges, on a 3-judge panel, reversed a federal district court’s injunction against an Illinois law, which provided that each school day begin with a moment of silence. Robert Sherman had sued on behalf of his daughter, a public school student, charging the moment of silence was an attempt by the state legislature to Establish Religion, in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Illinois statute provides that “In each public school classroom the teacher in charge shall 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.”
Federal constitutional precedent on laws of this nature was well established before the case was ever filed, so Sherman’s challenge was perhaps doomed from the start.
The federal district court found that the law “lacked a secular purpose and that it had the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion.” The court of appeals disagreed, ruling that the state had offered a secular purpose: “establishing a period of silence for all school children in Illinois to calm the students and prepare them for a day of learning.”
Further, the state law “addresses students’ rights under both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause and their rights to ‘free exercise of religion’ and ‘freedom to not be subject to pressure from the State either to engage in or to refrain from religious observation on public school grounds’.”
The appeals court majority relied on concurring opinions of three Supreme Court justices in prior cases related to religion and public schools. In Wallace v. Jafree, the Supreme Court over-ruled an Alabama statute which authorized teachers to lead students in prayer. The opinion of the court recognized that “legislative intent to return prayer to the public schools is, of course, quite different from merely protecting every student’s right to engage in voluntary prayer during an appropriate moment of silence during the school day.”
In the same case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that a “moment of silence law that is clearly drafted and implemented so as to permit prayer, meditation, and reflection within the prescribed period, without endorsing one alternative over the others, should pass” review under the First Amendment. Justice Lewis Powell similarly wrote that he “would vote to uphold the Alabama statute if it also had a clear secular purpose.”
The appeals court also looked to Justice William J. Brennan’s concurring opinion in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, the 1963 case which most famously ended state-sponsored recitation of either the Lord’s prayer or a reading from the Bible in tax-supported schools. Justice Brennan suggested that “the observance of a moment of reverent silence at the opening of class” may serve “solely secular purposes . . . without jeopardizing either the religious liberties of any members of the community or the proper degree of separation between the spheres of religion and government.”
Although pundits with various axes to grind continue to belabor the issue, American constitutional law is well established, plain, and simple: the state has no business writing prescribed prayers or leading public school students in religious exercises. Students, like any American, have the individual right to pray in whatever manner their beliefs may prescribe. Students do not leave their constitutional rights at the school house door.
The only restriction on individual exercise is that it may not disrupt the classroom. A moment of silence serves the secular purpose of getting everyone calmed down and establishing order in the classroom. Whether a student is using the time to pray, catch a moment of sleep, review their multiplication tables, or indulge in sexual fantasies, is beyond the control and knowledge of the teacher.