Supreme Court Won’t Hear Illinois Moment of Silence Case

Here in Illinois, the state mandates that we have a Moment of Silence in the classroom every day. (At my school, we do it over the loudspeakers during morning announcements.)

That law was called the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act” until state officials revised its name to make it less Christian-y. It’s unenforceable and there’s no penalty for not doing it… but it’s still part of the law.

Anyway, local activist Rob Sherman and his daughter Dawn have been fighting this law ever since its inception in 2007.

They got it overturned in 2009… temporarily.

A year ago, in October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said that the moment of silence was constitutional since “the measure did not specify that the silent time be spent in prayer.”

The only recourse was to appeal the Seventh Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Which Sherman did…

Yesterday, we found out that the Supreme Court denied hearing the case (PDF). They’re going to let the lower court’s decision stand.

Sherman has a few suggestions for how to overturn the law, though:

It just means that it’s time to ignore the courts and the legislature and take the law into our own hands. That is done by persuading school districts to blow off the law, since nothing will happen to them if they do, and by coercing the Illinois General Assembly to repeal the law or amend it by making it optional.

He’s totally right… but none of those options is going to happen anytime soon. As it stands, every teacher in the state has to continue wasting a few seconds at the beginning of each day, standing around and doing nothing, because a group of Christians legislators decided that silence is better than allowing teachers to get started with their daily routine.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    “local activist Rob Sherman and his caught Dawn” “caught” Should probably be “daughter”. 

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Fixed. Thanks!

  • Elliott776

    This is really splitting hairs. If they want a moment of silence, that lasts a minute or so, let them have it. It’s not Prayer. The church state separation argument won’t tip off it’s axis over a few minutes of “silent time”. This represent some of what called middle ground. Its what happens in a democracy when two sides can’t get what they want. I wonder if this Atheist movement is really worth the time considering the temper tantrums over verdicts like this. I think I will take a few minutes to reflect on that. 

    • MsGalaxy

      It’s letting things go, like this, that allows for the slow but inexorable encroachment of religion into the very fabric of our society. It’s already worked with you, Elliott. What’s a little silence matter? It allows a continued foothold in our society of the “okayness” of religion in schools and government places. I am all for the complete elimination of any suggestion of religion in those public places.

  • http://atheos-godless.blogspot.com/ ExPenty

    Things could be worse. Here in the UK schools are legally required to hold a daily act of worship of “broadly Christian character” that is compulsory for all children unless their parents specifically request that they be withdrawn. Thankfully, as an atheist, I cannot legally be required to take part and so I just get on with preparing my next lesson while the farcical act of worship is going on.

    • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

      Really? What does an act of worship of “broadly Christian character” entail?  

      • http://atheos-godless.blogspot.com/ ExPenty

        Usually a story based on the Bible, some Christian songs and a prayer.

      • http://atheos-godless.blogspot.com/ ExPenty
        • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

          Oh my, that seems quite in depth.

    • Anonymous

      To be fair assembly time when I was at school was all about school business and announcements.  Religion might crop up once a term….or maybe I just dozed through assembly.

  • Rich Wilson

    I wonder what would happen if a student coughed during the minute.  Or coughed twice.  Or three times.

    • PJB863

      I’m all for allowing students to fart – loudly……

  • T-Rex

    I’m as anti-theist as they come but this is just dumb. It’s not a moment of prayer, it’s a moment of silence.  This is another case of not knowing how to pick your battles.

    • Tasuret

      Matters more to teachers and students; it’s a fucking waste of time. Nothing to do with atheism, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    The moment of silence is just another form of prayer. Remember that they also like to pray silently. This is a way of shutting US up while they pray, giving them the endorsement they want. 

    I say make some noise. Recite the Establishment Clause again and again. Do something…

  • Anonymous

    Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right to have a “moment of silence” over a “loudspeaker.”

    • Bob Becker

      Thought the same thing.  Just how do you “do” a “moment of silence” over a loudspeaker?  That’s something I’d really like to hear.  Or not hear.  As the case may be. 

      • biker penguin

        Simple.  It’s just very loud silence.

        • Bob Becker

          Bet Simon & Garfunkel did it better.

        • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

          Is the school bell a copy of Old Tom from Unseen University?

          TRiG.

    • Trickster Goddess

      The amplified silence must be deafening.

  • Steven

    As an atheist I really don’t have a problem with a minute or so of silence in the morning, provided there is no pressure for religious observance (close eyes, head down, …).

    However I do wonder how the christian organizations behind this would feel if there were to be two moments of silence that happened to correspond with the muslim prayer times that would happen during a school day.

    • Rich Wilson

      I’ve been thinking about why this is different from a minute of silence to remember some tragic event, which I’m ok with.  I think it’s that a) it’s “we can’t call it prayer so we’ll call it X” and b) there really isn’t a specific purpose other than to pray.  I get that it helps get the class focused, but it seems like there’s better ways to do that.  Like we start when everyone stops talking and pays attention to the teacher.  Or how about a minute to write a 25 word summary of the last class?  THAT would be an effective teaching tool.  And I know school is full of useless ritual.  It just seems like this is one more ritual that doesn’t teach kids math or science or English.  It just teaches them to be superstitious.

      • Sulris Campbell

        i agree with you rich,

        while telling kids that they needs to shut up for one minute each day could very well be beneficial it is probably too short.  it might be good practice in self control to see if they could play the silence game for 10 minutes a day.

        A and B are good points and definite problems.  are they trying to teach self control or prayer? i think its the latterr

        what would poeple say if the silences corresponded to the five times a day that a muslim is supposed to pray. 

        There very well could be better things that a teacher could be doing with their time.

        i am currently teaching english and i have some classes where they need to practice being quite for a few seconds at least while someone else talks… and i have classes where the whole class is so shy they could benefit from a moment of loudness where they could practice not being silent for a little while.  but that isn’t the reason for the silence being held in illinois.  in illinois it is communicating that religous people need special treatment and we should all sit around and wait for them to do their thing instead of getting on with our lives becuase they are more important than everyone else.

        if they got to class 5 minutes early they could stand around in silence for as long as they wanted (assuming it was under 5 minutes) 

  • JonG

    Now normally I’m all for shaking my fist in the air and raging against the religious man, but I think this one is acceptable. The battle was won when it was re-worded. It is a moment of silence. If you read into it any more than that, it’s your own problem. I think it’s fine. 
    It adheres to the first amendment just fine and actually gives kids a chance to take a breath, relax, and think about what they want to think about. As someone with 2 hardworking school-age kids, I think they could use a minute in the morning to gather themselves in a school setting.

  • Bob Becker

    Let’s start the rumor that the moment of silence each morning is a Zen thing.  We get that one successfully planted, I figure the Christers will assault the school board demanding it be stopped forthwith. 

  • Claire A V

    I was actually in the courtroom when they made the oral arguments before the appellate judges in IL. Frankly, the opposing side made a good, non-religious case for the existence of the moment of silence. It quiets students down, let’s them get in learning mode, etc. There ISN’T anything overtly religious about it, you can infer that it would favor christianity as a religion since other religions don’t necessarily have silent prayer, etc., but the case isn’t that strong. Plus there is influential precedent from other courts that says a moment of silence is ok.

    And frankly, I’m not surprised the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. They’ve got much bigger fish to fry at the moment, and it’s not like there has been a ton of case law on this issue, nor is it particularly unsettled.

    Do I think the moment of silence is a waste of time? Yes. But unless schools and teachers are using it to proselytize to their students or force religion on people, it just isn’t unconstitutional.

  • Claire A V

    PS. The courts and even some advocacy organizations don’t particularly like dealing with Sherman. I think he gets to people in the same way Madalyn Murray O’Hair did – a strong figure, but not exactly beloved.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_E5IVDLJRGQTAVFK4KHLDKDH55Y Daniel

    As an Atheist, whatever.  Kinda makes me wish I were a student again so I could agitate in that silence.  

    As a teacher, I’d like those minutes to actually teach.

    As a taxpayer, why am I paying teachers to stand there silently?

  • Steve

    You want the religious right to live by the Establishment Cause even though they don’t like it.

    This decision doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause according to the Supreme Court. Seems to me that now we atheists need to accept that sometimes we don’t always get what we want the way we think it should be, but we still got what we want.

  • Dan

    I’ve had moments of silence before a math class before, and they actually worked for getting focused and letting the ol’ grey matter get into thinking mode. Shame a good learning tool like that is like a baby being fought over by two divorced parents.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Here in Illinois, the state mandates that we have a Moment of Silence in the classroom every day. (At my school, we do it over the loudspeakers during morning announcements.)

    There’s something comical about the idea of broadcasting a moment of silence with loudspeakers:

    ATTENTION STUDENTS! WE WILL NOW HAVE THE MOMENT OF SILENCE.

    . . . . . . . . . .

    THANK YOU.

    This will probably evolve over time in this way:
    . . . . . . . . . . will become . . . . . . . and then will become . . . . and eventually .. until finally the moment of silence is not announced loudly by the loudspeaker, it’s just the silence between one breath and the next.

    • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

      That very reason is why the students in my school loved that I was the one doing the morning announcements.  People wanted to just get the day started so it would be over, so my moment of silence ran something like this:

      “And now for a moment of silence…”
      *counting in my head: “One Mississippi, two Mississippi”*
      “Thank you and have a fantastic day, PGA!”

      Total waste of time at the end of the morning announcements and I refused to give it more than 2 seconds of my time.  Nobody said how long it had to be. *shrug and grin*

  • Rich Wilson

    At least they are hearing Hosanna

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I’m curious, when did “moments of silence” start being introduced into public schools? Did they coincide with the rise of the Religious Right? It seems to me that they just didn’t exist thirty or forty years ago. Did anyone here encounter them in American public schools prior to, say, 1980?

  • Daniel Miles

    Maybe it’s time to make lemonade out of this? Are there some silent games you could host during that time? Maybe one student tries to silently act out one of the math problems from last night’s homework and the other students write down guesses as to what it is?

  • Annie

    Sherman said, “It just means that it’s time to ignore the courts and the legislature and take the law into our own hands.”… and I don’t agree with him.  This to me is the same as the christians who think they know better and ignore the constitution by putting up ten commandment plaques at the courthouse.I would say to students to follow the law, and remain silent.  I, however, would interpret a “moment of silence” as a moment to practice my mime act.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Exactly how long is a “moment of silence”? Is it spelled out in the Illinois law?  No less than x  number of seconds, and no more than x number of seconds? 

    A full sixty-second minute is a reeeallly long time to observe group silence. Even in the most solemn, grief-ridden moments of silence called for during public events to remember some fallen heroes, I’ve never, ever seen an actual minute go by or even come close. 

    It would be interesting to use a stopwatch to study the average number of seconds that different teachers indulge this nonsense. I wonder if there would be a positive correlation between the religiosity of the person in charge of the moment of silence, and the length of time it is observed.

  • Dan W

    I agree with Rob Sherman on this. Why should you follow an unjust law? In my eyes, it’s more morally right to refuse to obey laws that are unjust.

  • Anonymous

    It’s good to know that atheists will not rest as long as someone, somewhere, might be praying

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Oh come on. Are you really going to try to pretend that you don’t understand the difference between preventing prayer being led during class by a teacher in a public school, which is how this whole “moment of silence” buffoonery got started, and trying to prevent anyone from praying anywhere?  This is not a complicated distinction.

      This is such a tiresome and phony trope. “Ohh! those terrible atheists want to keep me from praying at school!” No, and you know it. You can pray your little heart out on the playground, and even in class as long as you don’t disrupt the math lesson. Don’t strike that pose of being “persecuted” when a public school is stopped from illegally leading prayer.

      • Anonymous

        A moment of silence is just that. You don’t like it because you suspect that some students might use it for prayer. I’m agnostic and wouldn’t use it for prayer myself, but why should I care what thoughts are privately running through the mind of the guy next to me?
        Honestly, this seems like a pretty marvelous compromise. 

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          I seem to be shaking hands with the Great Pretender. In your first comment, you pretended to be obtuse about the difference between preventing teacher-led, in-class prayer in public schools and your absurd portrayal of preventing students from praying on their own time anywhere. When I called you on it, you did not even try to defend your characterization of atheists wanting to prevent all prayer everywhere.

          Instead, now you’re pretending to be a psychic.  You tell me what my thoughts are, and why I don’t like the moment of silence. If you had the courtesy and humility to ask me if that is so, and ask me why I don’t like it, you wouldn’t have to display your incompetence at telepathy. You say that you don’t care what thoughts are privately running through the minds of others, yet in both of your comments you pretend that you can read those thoughts. For a self-described “agnostic,” you don’t seem very willing to say “I don’t know” when it comes to the mind of the guy next to you.

          But rather than wait for you to ask, I’ll just tell you my objection to the “Moment of Silence.”  It has nothing to do with what some other person is thinking. I could not care less if they’re having a conversation with a spook or an erotic daydream. You and I seem to agree that the private thoughts of others are nobody else’s business.

          And so, I also think that a public school has no business trying to insert religious ideas into the private thoughts of students, or giving  their stamp of approval for religion explicitly or implicitly. Public schools around the country have  been trying to get away with breaking the law for decades, and now they’re trying to get around the law with a sly dodge. The “Moment of Silence” still remains a tacit, wink-and-a-nod endorsement and promotion of prayer by a public school and by the state of Illinois. They’re not-so-subtly implying,

          “Hey kids, we, the tax-paid school administrators and teachers want you to be religious and to pray. So we’re setting aside this officially required daily group ceremony where we hope that you will be praying. You don’t have to pray, but we’re still saying it’s so important that we should set aside school time for you to do it all together if you want to.”

          To re-emphasize, I have no objection to kids privately praying during recess, in the middle of a test, or even during this absurd mandated ritual. My objection is that the strong implication that the public school endorses and wants to promote prayer and religiosity in its students remains as the central motive for the practice.

  • Anonymous

    I think that you should learn sign language.  It’s a useful skill to have and it lets you obey the letter of the law while mocking it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Charlotte/100001257871259 Jim Charlotte

    As an atheist I’m kind of in favor of the moment of silence, as long as it isn’t called prayer and nobody has to close their eyes or are pressured to pray. A moment of silence is a good time to reflect and think about what you want to accomplish that day as a student. It’s a time to relax and let go of morning stress and get your mind ready to learn. At least that’s what I’ll tell my daughter if they have a moment of silence when she starts school.

  • Penguinoid

    Meanwhile millions of European pupils where learning science…

    • Penguinoid

      *were, sorry, am sleep-deprived.


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