Thursday, January 22, 2009

“Moment of Silence” for prayer silenced in Illinois (for now, at least)

Anybody who has observed the news and public policy for the past couple of decades like I have has an impression of atheist activist Rob Sherman as fairly shameless, and more than willing to drag his children into his political crusades.

Yet this week, a Sherman-inspired measure resulted in a Chicago-based federal judge doing the right thing when striking down the “moment of silence” that religious activists pushed the General Assembly to approve.

U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE Robert Gettleman issued a ruling that called the law “a subtle attempt” to bring back prayer in the public schools. He noted that the people affected by the now-unconstitutional law were children who were at an “impressionable age” when it comes to religious thought. Sherman filed the lawsuit that challenged this law on behalf of his teenage daughter, Dawn.

The simple fact is that there are some people who seriously can’t handle the thought that “the American Way” of life prohibits them from imposing their particular religious beliefs on other people.

Many of these people are among the ones who seriously believe that our society has gone downhill ever since prayer in the public schools was found to be a violation of provisions of the Constitution that call for a separation between organized religion and the government.

To them, the “moment of silence” was always the compromise measure they were willing to put up with so as to get something resembling a prayer back into the beginning of the school day.

WHEN THOSE PEOPLE lobbied the Illinois Legislature to approve the measure, they argued that a “moment of silence” could be used by the children for whatever they wanted. In theory, the children could spend the moment thinking about Hannah Montana or anything else they chose to do.

The reality is that people in some of the smaller communities where such thought is publicly popular would have felt compelled to think some sort of religious thought during those moments.

And in those communities, woe be unto the individual whose religious beliefs might not fall in lock step with the bulk of the community.

Personally, I always thought the concept of a “moment of silence” was an attempt to crack the door open just a tad toward getting religious thought back into the public schools. I thought the Legislature was misguided when they went along and approved the measure (mostly out of fear that these supporters of the idea would create a vocal ruckus that could cost them votes).

IF IT SOUNDS like I think some of the legislators who voted to approve the idea were cowardly, you’d be correct.

If anything, the idea of a “moment of silence” almost could work in communities where the population is larger and more diverse. In such places, the idea that not everybody would have the same “thought” during a “moment of silence” would be accepted more readily.

Yet it is some of those rural communities, many of which have intentionally isolated themselves from urban Chicago, where such ideas play the best.

If I thought seriously that such ideas would be restricted purely to the rural communities, I wouldn’t mind so much. I would just add such ideas to the list of why I have no personal desire to ever live in rural Illinois. Having lived in both Bloomington and Springfield for a couple stretches of my life, I feel like I have lived close to it enough to get a feel for it, and why I wouldn’t want to be there.

SO IN THE same way that some rural people think of gun control measures as an urban idea that does not apply to their way of life, I’d say such goofy ideas as a “moment of silence” are rural concepts that just don’t fit in with life in a place like Chicago.

I only hope the idea is dead for good.

Because I won’t be surprised if the concept’s supporters try to get the General Assembly to approve another version of the same basic concept – one that would slip the same idea with technical changes so as to comply with the letter of the law, as expressed in Gettleman’s ruling on Wednesday.

In the current political climate where many Democrats are concerned that Rod Blagojevich’s so-called sins will reflect badly upon them, I could easily see Dems in the Legislature being willing to approve such a revival of the “moment of silence” out of a misguided belief that it would lessen the likelihood of such people turning out in strong support of a Republican for governor, Senator, and all the other state government posts, during the next statewide elections in 2010.

SO FOR THE time being, we do not have children being pressured to “pipe down” so they can reflect on God (that’s what the point really was). If that means a little bit less intimidation in the public schools, that’s a good thing.

Because I honestly believe that parents who seriously want their children to receive religious indoctrination in between mathematics and social studies ought to just accept the fact they need to pay tuition to a parochial school.

If it means that Sherman’s latest crusade has helped people to realize the truth of that statement, then he has accomplished at least one good thing during his adult life.

I may even forgive him for the time some two decades ago that he showed up at the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago at about 3 a.m. on a weekend, just to make me have to listen to a tape he had of then-President Ronald Reagan making some half-wit comment about religion.


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