Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board members Monday decided not to enforce the daily “moment of silence” required by a new state law.
“I really have a problem with it. I do see it as an intrusion of church and state flat out,” said board member Andrew Pigozzi.
On October 11 the state legislature passed a law that requires a moment of silence in classrooms across the state.
The moment of silence “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,” according to the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.
A lawsuit has been filed challenging the constitutionality of the new law. A federal judge declined to stop Township High School District 214 from observing a moment of silence, but he said he is weighing the constitutionality of the legislation, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Prior to the change, teachers had the option of incorporating a moment of silence into the day if they so chose.
“I find the change from ‘may’ to ‘shall’ intrusive,” said school board member Katie Bailey. “We mandate so much of what our teachers should do during the day, and at some point we need local control over those decisions. So I have the issue with the word prayer, but I also have the issue with the word ‘shall.’”
Prompted by a letter from state senator Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston), the school board sought to obtain a waiver that would exempt them from the new law.
“I believe the mandatory moment of silence is an onerous requirement for which District 65 should seek a mandate waiver immediately from the Illinois State Board of Education,” Mr. Schoenberg wrote in a letter to board president Mary Erickson.
“It represents undue interference in the ability of these teachers to manage their own classrooms and has nothing whatsoever to do with improving student performance.”
But according to the Illinois State Board of Education, District 65 cannot seek a waiver until the law is incorporated into the Illinois School Code.
“I’m upset with the way the state legislature has done this,” Ms. Erickson said. “Because here we are faced with the idea of ignoring the law or going along with something that many of us feel is simply not appropriate. So we are sort of backed into a corner.”
If the ISBE includes the law in the Illinois School Code, the district will have to provide public notice, hold a public hearing, and submit a request to obtain a waiver.
Currently the law is unclear about what a “brief period of silence” is and how long it should be.
“Does a teacher participate and if so how does she do that? Does she have to neutralize her personal spirituality when she’s in that setting?” said Kelly Austin, a parent who has two students at Orrington Elementary School.
“Kids are going to ask questions: do I close my eyes and look downward, do I look up to the heavens, do I get down on my knees?”
Unlike majority of the board, Bonnie Lockhart doesn’t believe that the state government has overstepped the boundaries between church and state because they are not forcing students to pray during the moment of silence.
“I really think it’s important for us to be clear that this is not saying that anyone has to pray. It really is saying that it is a moment of silence,” she said. “I think facing the facts that our children are inundated with many stimuli that a moment of silence is beneficial to them.”
When asked, Superintendent Hardy Murphy said that if the district enforced the law they would probably have the moment of silence during the morning announcements in each school and there would be written guidelines for the teachers so they “don’t trip over the bounds of…proselytizing.”
Ms. Bailey said that having a structured moment of silence every day can lessen the importance of it.
“A moment of silence is often used in a very important period of time like we used it tonight to remember somebody or to remember an event,” she said. “I’m thinking now if you had it every day during the announcements it takes away, in some sense, the important aspect of what a moment is.”
The board will not require its teachers to observe a moment of silence at this time and they are awaiting further action from the ISBE.
They don’t know if their action will result in sanctions.
When possible, the district will apply for a waiver. Until then, teachers are free to decide whether or not they want to follow the mandate.