Thursday, February 21, 2008

Moment of silence returns

By Patrick O’Brien
The controversial law mandating a moment of silence or prayer in state schools will face a challenge at the Statehouse after a House committee on Thursday approved a proposal by one vote to make the moment of silence optional.

Chicago Democratic Rep. John Fritchey proposed taking the word “prayer” out of the law’s name. Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the law last year but was overridden by legislators. Classrooms are now mandated to observe the moment at the beginning of each school day, although there are no penalties for not complying.

Fritchey insists that the issue isn’t prayer in schools, rather the wording of the original law. He said after the committee hearing that he would prefer to repeal the moment of silence mandate but would compromise by reverting back to the intent of the original 1969 law allowing it.

A federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois is considering whether the mandate is constitutional. James Ferg-Cadima, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the committee that the court indicated that a challenge is likely to succeed.

Rev. Bob Vanden Bosch of Concerned Christian Americans said similar laws in Virginia and Texas survived multiple court challenges. Other supporters of the original law say that 32 states have similar laws, and 14 of them make the moment of silence mandatory.

Rep. Karen Yarbrough, a Maywood Democrat, said the law is about prayer. “In people’s hearts and minds, that is the underlying issue here.”

Other lawmakers think the mandate harms schools’ bottom lines. Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican and former teacher, said the law takes more control from local school districts and gives it to Springfield. “It’s not about God, it’s not about my faith.”

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