The Moment of Silence and Prayer Has Begun January 19, 2011

The Moment of Silence and Prayer Has Begun

When the now-mandatory “moment of silence and prayer” happened in my classroom yesterday, I heard a lot of different responses from students:

  • Why are we doing this…? [Because most Illinois politicians are idiots.]
  • I thought forced prayer was illegal in public schools. [Yes. Yes it is…]
  • Mehta, can we just ignore this like we do all the other announcements? [Of course not. You must listen to them every day like the perfect little angels you are.]

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn points out that for all the shit Rod Blagojevich did, at least he got this one right when he vetoed the bill a few years back:

“The law in Illinois today already allows teachers and students the opportunity to take a moment for silent thought or prayer, if they choose to,” he said in vetoing the bill. “I believe this is the right balance between the principles echoed in our constitution, and our deeply held desire to practice our faith.”

Rob Sherman, the local atheist who (with his daughter) put a stop to the Moment of Silence a few years ago — only to have the injunction lifted now — is ready to pounce back into action. And he’s bringing some help:

America’s two top atheists, Mike Newdow and Rob Sherman, are joining forces to appeal to the US Supreme Court last year’s widely mocked decision by the Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals that the Illinois Student Prayer Act is supposedly constitutional.  Newdow and I have challenged more violations of atheist constitutional rights than anybody else in the history of the nation.

Newdow will be the lead attorney on our Supreme Court appeal of the Appellate Court decision regarding the obviously unconstitutional Illinois "Moment of Silence" law.  That decision reversed Judge Gettleman’s decision from the local federal District Court that recognized that the Student Prayer Act is, indeed, unconstitutional.

Rob Sherman: A man who never lacks for self-esteem 🙂

But still, yes, good, this is what needs to happen. File the lawsuit and get this “silent prayer” act out of the public schools. I applaud the move. I only wish more people could get involved in the suit.

If Illinois legislators want teachers to waste “moments” of our students’ time, I promise we can find better ways to do it than spending it in silence.

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  • Chris

    I just don’t understand how blatant violations like this can continue to be regarded as perfectly fine

    I find it amusing your students know its illegal but the lawmakers don’t

  • Claudia

    America’s two top atheists, Mike Newdow and Rob Sherman,

    Not that I don’t appreciate their efforts, but in your dreams, guys. Hitchens is an American citizen. Even if you wanted to count him as a Brit, Harris, Shermer and Dennett are unquestionably American, and IMO definitely more important atheists than either of these guys.

    I am glad that they’re challenging the law, I just could do with a little less self-aggrandizement.

    Hemant, is the “moment of silence” obligatory, or are you allowed to tell your students that they are free to do whatever they want with that time?

  • Bob

    As the product of a Jesuit school, I’m dismayed at Illinois’ attempt to shoehorn religion into education.

    There’s a time for prayer, and a time for study. Saying a hasty ‘Our Father’ before Algebra class isn’t going to help me solve that equation or magically correct my homework. It’s not going to work some mystical wooj on Mr. Mehta’s grade book.

    And if it’s a search for inspiration and/or dedication to academic excellence that the prayer is supposed to bestow, maybe the time and place for the prayer is at home before you leave for school, not before your 1st period class.


  • Meg

    At least our little school district in Indiana does a moment of ‘silence’, so I’ll be watching this closely.

  • America’s two top atheists, Mike Newdow and Rob Sherman

    Their Kung Fu is stronger than America’s top two theists.

    Oh hang on. What about Chuck Norris?

  • Bob


    That all depends on whether Chuckles the Ninja bows his head when he prays. It may be the only time he’s not looking.

  • Rick M

    What is the mandated length of time for this “moment of silence and prayer”? The Trib article cites three examples of 8, 10, & 15 seconds. Are teachers given an official policy statement on how to introduce and instruct students on how to use this time? Could pious teachers extend this time to minutes?
    I’m wondering what students from non-religious backgrounds, particularly in the younger grades, understand “prayer” to be. If they ask their teacher, is the teacher obliged to provide an explanation?

  • At the appointed time, without saying a word, you could silently put on a pirate hat, sit still and leave it on for 15 seconds, and then take it off. Then get back to teaching math.

  • Drakk

    See, I was going to suggest something similar to Jeff P, only my idea was for you to hang a picture of FSM on the wall and face it for 8 seconds, without explaining or making any sound whatsoever.

    Is there a specific clause that says you can’t just silently think about the solution to a math problem you’re looking at?

    Oh, and Hemant – did you actually respond to your students’ questions that way? 😉

  • Hemant, is the “moment of silence” obligatory, or are you allowed to tell your students that they are free to do whatever they want with that time?

    Yes, it’s obligatory. Does it mean everyone will do it? No. Students don’t always listen to announcements; they’re talking to friends. I’m sure in some cases, they won’t even know it happened.

    What is the mandated length of time for this “moment of silence and prayer”?

    My school does 15 seconds. I suppose some religious teacher could extend it, but I’d be surprised if students could last any longer.

    There’s no official policy or time. There’s no penalty for not doing it.

    Oh, and Hemant – did you actually respond to your students’ questions that way?

    Only in my own head… 🙂

  • coyotenose

    So how would we go about popularizing the fifteen seconds as “Fart Time”?

    I think it’d be a hit with the right ad campaign.

  • Jon Peterson

    I’d vote for the next timewaster being mandatory kickball!

    Or in the winter, mandatory Age of Empires (strategy games build minds, and don’t you forget it!). 😛

  • Adam

    “If you have any last minute text messages to send before class starts, take this moment of silence to do so.”

  • Devil’s advocate here:

    Is the moment of silence not a good time to briefly and quietly think about the upcoming day and gather your thoughts?

    I suppose the argument is that it’s a veiled (or not so veiled) attempt to introduce prayer into the public school classroom.

    Just thinking out loud here.

  • This makes America like a Masonic Temple. Sure, we don’t care what religion you are, as long as you have a religion. Now I’m going to go sit in King Solomon’s chair now. Not that I’m endorsing the Old Testament or anything! (Yes I am.)

    In Canada we don’t have an Establishment Clause. We’ve got religious freedom, but no freedom from religion. It’s sticky sometimes, but fair most of the time. That’s where the Canadian Civil Liberties Union steps in. The least we can say is we’re not hypocrites.

  • Rich Wilson

    I wish the plaintiffs would dial back the atheist moniker in this case. I’m all for being ‘out’, but this doesn’t have anything to do with atheism. It’s separation of church and state. You can be a Muslim and be offended by the fact that there’s only one moment of silence, not five. By promoting the fact that they’re atheists they’re distracting from what I think is the real issue. This would be better handled by AU.

  • Bob


    And when it turns out our committment to excellence is not measurably improved by that thought-gathering moment of reflection, can we dispense with it?

    Academic excellence does not result from prayer or a moment of silence. It results from cracking a book and studying.

  • David

    So, we are about to have our moment of silence. (Writes on the board, turns around)

    Done? Good. What you see here is…

  • Alex

    My atheist senior HS daughter has really taken a liking to the FSM and has been turning her friends on to this special Pastafarian. Maybe more school aged kids need to learn more about him so they can say Ramen instead of Amen at school lead prayers which seems to the norm down here south of alabama!

  • sck

    I wonder how it would go over if a student busted out a prayer rug, pointed it towards Mecca, and tried to knock off one of his/her 5 daily prayers?

  • Stephen P

    Only in my own head…

    But they read your blog, don’t they?

  • Greg

    Tyler, only if you’re unprepared, and haven’t already readied yourself, in your own time, before coming to school. :p

    And maybe you need more than 15 seconds for that, anyway. You can’t do anything useful in such a short period of time.

    And maybe some students would find it easier to focus themselves with a few words from their teacher.


    I wonder if anyone got up and did a few martial arts forms, if anyone would object…

  • Christina

    Like Tyler says, I don’t see why it has to be for prayer necessarily. We had one at my school in the liberal state of Rhode Island and I understood it to be a moment of reflection. With all the technology we use today, is it not beneficial to ask us children to spend some time actually thinking about the days events/politics/a new art project, or even to make a resolution? I do it during class time anyway…

  • Olivia

    At my school they said before it that it “wasn’t religious” and a couple kids were like “this is bull” I agree I mean it says prayer right there in the act name. Even though I know some of my teachers would love to extend it, we say the pledge right after so it doesn’t drag on too long, only about 20 – 30 seconds.

  • sck

    I can understand points and thoughts brought up by Christina and Tyler, however, if this is a moment of reflection then it should be only referred to as moment of reflection, not PRAYER and reflection. The word prayer should never be included, not in the bill passed in the state to establish this nor as a name for what this moment is being described as to students/teachers.

    Maybe a moment of reflection is good- we can talk about possible benefits to the student established through academic research. However, call a spade a spade- this is a blatant attempt to squeak prayer back into schools.

    This is creationism all over again- creationism has been established as religion not science in courts, so its proponents just changed it to Intelligent Design. Water it down a bit and change the language surrounding it and try again.

  • Haley

    15 seconds? At the public school I attend in South Carolina, we have 60 seconds of silence in first period every day, right in between the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t know for sure if it’s mandatory or not, but every teacher I’ve had for first period has told us to be quiet while it’s going on so that we’re being respectful to anyone who wants to use that time to pray, and they could easily write a discipline referral for any of us for causing a disturbance or for willful disobedience.

    And now they’ve moved it to the end of first period, so that we actually have to stop instructional time for the “ritual.” My first class of the day is IB Biology, which is two periods long, so when we’re taking a test, we have to give up some of our allotted time to stand up and shut up during the National Anthem and the moment of silence, although we ARE given the option to say the Pledge or not say it. How generous of them. /sarcasm

  • According to the Associated Press, “…the law reads, in part, that the brief period of silence at the opening of every school day ‘shall not be conducted as a religious exercise but shall be an opportunity for silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day.'”

    That’s great for we theists, of course. We know how to use that time. But the law is intentionally open-ended, non-directive and inclusive. For secular folk, it would appear to be a chance to sit, get focused, and structure your thoughts. Taking time to analyze, reflect, and assess is an essential characteristic of the rational individual.

  • This is disgusting. A Student Prayer Act? In 2011? I honestly can’t believe it’s being allowed to happen. You’re in Illinois, not the Bible Belt, which makes it even more disturbing. If anyone ever tried to pass legislation like this in California, I imagine they’d be regarded as some sort of fanatic and/or laughed out of the room.

  • @Beloved Spear,

    Or we secularists can contemplate how all the people mouthing prayers are thinking that those not mouthing prayers are less than worthy humans and are going to burn in hell because we are not part of the religion club. Should the state really be enabling this in a school environment?

  • cat

    @Haley, that sounds more like what I remember, but we had to do ours in the morning. I am not sure exactly how long the ‘moment of silence’ was in seconds, but I know it was enough time to repeat the Tolkien poem that starts “All that is gold does not glitter…” three times at a leisurely pace in my head. Almost five years later, I still know every word of that poem, which tells you how useful moments of silence are. The pledge always annoyed me more, because it was de facto mandatory (again, with the ‘I know it isn’t legal…line) and involved a disturbing amount of nationalism as well as an invocation of god. So I just moved my mouth in bad Ashley Simpson style lip sync to avoid having to say it.

  • sck

    Beloved Spear- the “the law is intentionally open-ended, non-directive and inclusive” so it can pass constitutional scrutiny. If the creators of the law really cared about being “open-ended, non-directive and inclusive” they would not have put the word prayer in the title of it.

    Probably gonna have to agree to disagree on the intent. Good day sir/madam.

  • Yehram

    We have something similar in my highschool in NJ, but it’s simply called “a moment of silence.” Prayer is never mentioned in the phrase and on the whole it only lasts for about 15 seconds or less. Also, it’s only implemented when there is a faculty death, and I as an atheist really had no objections to make when the whole school quieted down to remember a beloved teacher.
    Of course, I would disagree completely with the setup if it included the word “prayer” or was mandatory every day.

  • Hemant,

    Dan Barker will be in Naperville next week.

    I’m sure Americans United for Separation of Church & State will discuss this topic.

  • since this “law” comes with no penalty, I don’t see why Hemant bothers doing it at all. Ignore the damn moment of silence, and challenge it in court if they force you to. Get involved.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I wish the plaintiffs would dial back the atheist moniker in this case. I’m all for being ‘out’, but this doesn’t have anything to do with atheism. It’s separation of church and state.

    @Rich Wilson: Do you realize how offensive telling people to dial back on the atheism is to ideological atheists?

  • MTran

    Michael Newdow? He may be a frequent litigant but I cringe when I read that he’s a “leading” atheist. Even worse, he appears to be lead attorney for this issue.

    Newdow may be on the same side of the issue as I am but his legal work? Ugh.

    I really hope his skills have substantially improved since the pledge case. Because if he screws up on this one, the Supreme Court is not likely to do his work for him, as the Ninth Circuit did in the pledge case. And a loss on this case would create a truly dreadful precedent.

  • Keith

    It simply boggles my mind that such an activity would be made mandatory. What is it about a moment of prayer or even a moment of silence that is supposed to further our children’s education? That is the purpose of school isn’t it, to further education?

  • Dan W

    I said it before, I’ll say it again. If there’s no punishment for not having this ‘moment of silence/prayer’ in your class, Hemant, why bother doing it at all? It’d be better off to ignore it and do something useful with that time.

  • AxeGrrl

    Adam wrote:

    “If you have any last minute text messages to send before class starts, take this moment of silence to do so.”

    I laughed 🙂

  • Anansi

    If only they hadn’t included the word “Prayer” in the law I think it would be perfectly fine to have a moment of quiet to focus oneself before tackling the academic challenges of the day.

    As a Canadian, though, I am bewildered by this daily need to pledge allegiance to something. Do these pledges automatically expire after 24 hours? It would seem to me that making such a solemn vow only needs to be done once in a lifetime.

  • I keep coming back to this story and thinking “thin end of a wedge”. If they can get a moment of silence into schools and accepted then in a few years they can get led prayer and in a generation it’ll be 30 minutes of worship. It needs to be ridiculed and fought now before they can say “but we’ve had prayer in schools for 50 years” or something equally dishonest.

    BTW in England all schools are required by law to have an act of worship of “wholly or mainly Christian character” every day. That is “by law” but then we are, at least officially, a Christian nation. Hardly any school obeys this law and nobody does anythign about it.

  • gsw

    BTW in England all schools are required by law to have an act of worship of “wholly or mainly Christian character” every day.

    Yes, and when I was at school there we called it assembly – and believe me few worshipped or prayed.
    Mainly, it served the purpose of announcing sporting events, controlling uniformity of uniform and getting everybody into the school before the lessons started.

    At various (christian) religious festivals, we would sing such old-time favourites as when shepherds washed their socks by night, and the old latin benito something-or-other.

    No one took it seriously and few cared. We stood up for God and the Queen – without differentiating between the two – and even carried flags (flag parade) sometimes.

    I truly believe that the irreverence of our teachers during this act of worship of “wholly or mainly Christian character” went further to confirm the atheism of myself and most of my friends than even the Sunday school propaganda.

  • Michael

    You know…….. I own a smart phone, and on my smart phone I have the ability to have a “farting” & and also an “Air Horn” App. I believe the moment of silence would be the most excellent time to avail myself of the useage of those Apps….. repeatedly!!! LMAO………..

  • liz

    I would just like to state that if we had daily moments of silence when i was in high school it WOULD NOT have been a good way for me to collect my thoughts, think about the day before it happens, or prepare myself to focus…

    every time my public school had a moment of silence, whether it be for a student who had passed away or for some other day in history that i wasn’t alive for, i remember thinking and feeling only one thing, “oh my gawd, this is sooo awkward”

    everyone silently looks around at eachother or whispers to their friends and it’s just plain AWKWARD. At least for everyone who isn’t using the time to pray! point made.

  • moky

    I remember what my principal said when I went to high school last year when this was an issue. ‘Our school will not have the moment of silence, the time during the national anthem is enough.’ Paraphrasing a bit, but that was her basic point. I wonder how she is handling the situation, she refused before when it was deemed mandatory.

  • davon

    you dumbass, it’s not forced prayer, it’s a offered time for those to pray, not just to their god IF they want to, they can pray that they do good on a test, that or they can think about what their day consists of, so i would get some facts if i was you.

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