State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th) says Illinois kids can use a “moment of silence” at the start of the school day.

Opponents of the legislation requiring kids to take one, however, say it’s a slippery slope sliding toward mandated prayer in schools.

Last week, the state legislature overrode Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s veto of a bill sponsored by Lightford earlier this year requiring students to have a moment of silence at the beginning of each school day.

The revised law-originally passed in the House and Senate in May, but later vetoed by the governor-affects all schools in Illinois.

The Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act was amended with a one-word change, stating that a public classroom teacher “shall”, rather than “may”, observe a brief period of silence with all students participating.

Lightford said she introduced the change because of the many social ills kids face today, such as school violence and bullying.

She added that kids could reflect on those ills, or on problems they’re having at school or at home, or on their classes. She said teachers could use the moment to get their classes under control.

Opponents of the law stress that before the change in wording the law gave teachers the option to have such a moment without mandating it. Opponents added that the law also promotes school prayer.

Lightford said the bill doesn’t require students to say a prayer.

“The law doesn’t require them to say anything. It allows that child to get focused on the day’s activities,” she said.

Twenty-nine other states have a similar law, Lightford said.

State Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th), a House co-sponsor of the bill, said he supported the measure because he believed students needed a time to reflect. Ford called it “a neutral moment for all to do what they need to do.”

State schools will now have to figure out how to implement the new law.

In Oak Park’s Elementary School District 97, Supt. Constance Collins said her district won’t implement the change until she has a chance to talk with the principals and staff of the 10-school district. Collins said she didn’t see it as a conflict with school prayer, which is prohibited in schools. Collins added that each student can use the moment in a way that’s appropriate for him/her.

“This is not something we would dictate but would let them know that this is a moment to have some time to themselves,” she said.

Blagojevich’s veto was struck down last week by a 74-37 vote.

Along with Ford, West Side state representative Deborah Graham (78th) also voted yes.

The bill passed both houses on May 31. Blagojevich vetoed the measure in August. The Illinois Senate overrode the governor’s veto on Oct. 3.

State Sen. Don Harmon (39th), who represents Oak Park and Austin, was one of nine senators who voted against overriding Blagojevich’s veto. Harmon said last Friday that when the bill was first introduced, he felt it was “reasonable.”

“The reasons I heard originally were very secular,” he said. “Kids need to collect themselves in the classroom prior to classes.”

He soon became increasingly uncomfortable.

“On reflection it seemed more and more like a big step toward mandating school prayer,” he said.

Harmon said he heard little during Senate floor debate regarding any reason why the law needed to be amended from “may,” to “shall.”

Harmon also expressed concern that decisions on whether to allow the moment of silence had been taken from local school districts.

“Local school districts should be able to determine whether they want this for themselves,” he said.

Harmon said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were legal challenges to the law.

“There are no standards,” he said. “What’s the definition of ‘a moment?’ As this is implemented, there will be more questions raised, and more concerns.”

For instance, the law doesn’t specify how long a “brief period” is. Lightford said she may amend the bill to include a specific time, but that for right now, district school boards would decide an appropriate time.

As for enforcement, Lightford said the State Board of Education has jurisdiction to enforce the law. Lightford added that she hopes school districts will follow the law.

“I don’t think this will solve or fix [every education problem], but if it saves a life, I think that’s good thing,” she said.

Bill Dwyer contributed to this story.


The Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act

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.