Senate committee rejects moment of silence change

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – State senators potentially killed an effort to change the embattled moment of silence for schools law Wednesday after a confusing debate that mixed religious differences and personal criticism.

A Senate committee shot down a bid to change a House measure that would instruct schools how to handle taking time at the beginning of each day for silent reflection.

Lawmakers last year approved making the moment of silence mandatory, but a constitutional challenge in federal court has put that in legal limbo. The House voted in March to make it permissive again.

Sen. Kim Lightford, D-Chicago, tried to change the House measure back to mandatory. When that failed, she refused to move ahead with the permissive House version.

Lightford wouldn’t say legislative efforts on the issue are dead but noted several colleagues made it clear they didn’t want to take immediate action.

“It sounds like the members want to let the courts play out the current law,” Lightford said.

Until last year, Illinois gave teachers the option to have a moment of silence, which could include a time of silent reflection or prayer.

Lightford pushed to make it a requirement, and lawmakers approved the change and then overrode Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s veto.

But a federal lawsuit by atheist Rob Sherman over the law’s constitutionality has left schools uncertain about how to handle the moment of silence.

Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, persuaded the House to take out references to prayer and make it permissive again.

Lightford said she considered that move disrespectful, given that her law was still being debated in court. So she took over sponsorship of Fritchey’s bill in the Senate, meaning she controls whether it moves ahead there.

Lightford hoped to ease concerns by putting up to a one-minute time limit on the silence moment while making it mandatory again. She argued kids need time to reflect each day in a uniform manner, rather than having different situations in different classrooms.

“Kids have no respect for authority,” Lightford said. “They have no structure, and they bring that behavior to the schools.”

Earlier Wednesday, Fritchey predicted Lightford’s changes would doom the measure in the House and cause more legal wrangling.

“It’s unfortunate that her hostile sponsorship of my legislation is going to thwart not only the will of the House but the desire of school districts around the state and common sense,” Fritchey said.

Lightford’s maneuvering drew a mixed response from legislators and lobbyists alike. Three senators supported the change, two voted against it and four voted present. It needed six ‘yes’ votes to be adopted.

Sherman, who filed the suit on behalf of his high school daughter, said he’s still opposed to the idea of forcing the moment of silence on schools.

“It should be at the discretion of the teacher and the school district,” Sherman said.

Lightford and other legislators questioned Sherman’s motives in fighting both the law and Lightford’s changes. Officials with two major teacher unions joined Sherman in supporting Fritchey’s bill but opposing Lightford’s changes.

The conservative Illinois Family Institute asked lawmakers to block the measure and let the courts decide if the law should stand – with prayer still included as an option.

“This is not a dirty word, prayer,” said Ralph Rivera, an IFI lobbyist.