Debate over mandated silent prayer continues in Champaign

By Patrick Wade

The public classroom is a place for learning, Champaign Mayor Gerald Schweighart said, not for sex education and moments of silence.

“I’d like to see them concentrate more on education instead of all the social stuff that they’re doing,” he said.

The state of Illinois became a focus of national debate when lawmakers overrode a Gov. Rod Blagojevich veto of a bill mandating that public schools start each day with a “moment of silence.”

Since the law went into effect Oct. 12, some opponents of the mandate have said legislators are trying to slip prayer into public schools.

Esther Patt, chapter president of the Champaign County American Civil Liberties Union, said these legislators are getting as close as they can to the boundary between church and state without actually crossing it.

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“Prayer is a part of the sex education and the condoms and all that junk,” Schweighart said. “Get rid of that in the school and teach reading and writing.”

There is nothing wrong, however, with allowing time for prayer during a public meeting, he added.

The mayor, a former Catholic school student, has opened every regular session City Council meeting with an open invitation to join him in a “moment of silent prayer.” He is the first Champaign mayor to make this type of request since the 1970s, Patt said.

“It’s something that I’ve done all my life, so it’s just a natural,” Schweighart said. “And I don’t open with a prayer. I open by inviting people to join me in a moment of silent prayer, so they can pray whatever they want.”

In his nine years as mayor, Schweighart said he has only received one complaint from an offended citizen.

When the city attorney informed him that his religious request is completely legal, the mayor said to the city attorney, “Tell them that if it offends them, please step outside the door until we are done.”

Prayer is not an uncommon way to start a public meeting. The U.S. Congress and Illinois General Assembly both open their meeting sessions with a prayer.

Even the Champaign County Board designates time on its monthly meeting agenda for a short prayer. Since Board Chairman C. Pius Weibel took over last year, however, that time is usually filled with a “poem or reflective comment,” said Dist. 3 Board member Brad Jones.

“I don’t see anything wrong with having a short prayer before a public meeting,” Jones said. “I think it’s very reasonable for elected officials to pray for wisdom.”

Especially at the county level, Jones added, prayer is a way to put aside political partisanship.

During the Nov. 6 Champaign City Council meeting, At-Large Council member Thomas Bruno put his hands in his pockets during the mayor’s silent prayer request.

Bruno said the mayor’s request does not bother him, he just does not like to make a public display of his faith.

“When somebody says, ‘Let’s all do this praying together,’ I don’t want to disrespect them or disturb their prayer,” Bruno said. “But I’m not going to pretend like I’m going along with their religious experience.”

Dist. 2 Council member Michael La Due said he would rather the mayor request a moment of silence instead of a “moment of silent prayer.”

“Obviously if you want to pray, you’re at liberty to,” La Due said. “But I think a moment of silence is a time of focus and reflection before you jump into the business of the meeting. I think it prejudices it to suggest it’s a moment of silent prayer.”

Schweighart said, prayer or not, someone will be offended.

“I think it’s like saluting the flag,” Schweighart said. “It’s all part of respect.”