SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois students will be required to observe a moment of silence at the beginning of every school day under a new law that state legislators approved yesterday.
Supporters say the goal is to give students a bit of peace and quiet to reflect on the day ahead — "to listen to the rustling of leaves, to listen to the chirping of a bird, to listen to the tip-tap of a child walking," said state Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago.
But critics call the measure an attempt to promote organized school prayer.
"It may not mandate prayer, but that's what it's about," said state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.
The measure originally passed during the spring legislative session, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed it, saying the requirement of a moment "for silent prayer or for silent reflection" might be unconstitutional.
The Senate overrode the veto last week. The House did the same yesterday, voting 74-37.
The law, S.B. 1463, takes effect immediately, so every public school must now begin the day with a moment of silence.
An Illinois law called the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act already allowed schools to observe a moment of silence if they so chose. The new provision changes just one word: "may" observe becomes "shall" observe.
The sponsor of the change, state Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, said his goal is not to open the door for teachers to lead their classes in morning prayer. Instead, he hopes the quiet time will help students calm down and think about their plans.
Davis suggested a moment of silence might have prevented the recent incident in Cleveland where a suspended 14-year-old shot two students and two teachers before killing himself.
"Just think if that student had an opportunity maybe to sit and reflect," Davis said.
The American Civil Liberties Union would not comment last evening on whether it might challenge the new law.
Some lawmakers argued that even if the prayer issue was set aside, the legislation was still a bad idea. The state shouldn't tell local schools how to conduct business, especially if it means the time could be spent on instruction, they said.
"I want the teachers teaching. I want the students learning," said state Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago.