It's a fairly tired truism that when government gets involved in the business of prayer, bad things are bound to happen.
Yet government meddling in religion never seems to be a thing of the past. Over and over again, we witness legislatures interfering in what ought to be private matters about prayer. At some point in time, sooner, rather than later I would hope, it would be a great relief if lawmakers at every level from coast to coast were to get a clue and quit playing the religion card.
Until then, our collective conscience will be saddled from time to time with situations similar to the controversy over a statewide moment of silence/prayer law in Illinois. For many years, that state had a moment of silence law that did not reference prayer and left the option of taking a moment-of-silence to the student. It seemed to be working out OK.
But last year, busy-body lawmakers, spurred on by Religious Right activists, passed a new law dubbed the "Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act," which mandated a moment-of-silence or prayer for the state's public school students.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich, citing his concern for keeping the government out of the prayer business, vetoed the bill. But it was saved when a majority of lawmakers overrode the veto.
Not surprisingly the law has been challenged in a federal court by a parent who is intent on keeping government and religion separate. Rob Sherman's lawsuit was lodged against the school district where his daughter attends high school, but earlier this week the federal judge ruled that the lawsuit should become a class-action one allowing students and parents from all over the state to challenge the law. The lawsuit now has the potential to be aimed at barring all the state's public school districts from enforcing the law.
The entire fracas over how students should spend a few moments every morning before class has consumed a colossal amount of time, and it looks like it will suck up a lot more. It shouldn't have been this way. Students already have a First Amendment right to voluntarily pray in the public schools, and Illinois had functioned well for years with a moment of silence law that didn't promote prayer and didn't mandate action in the public schools.
Instead of kowtowing to the desires of Religious Right lobbyists, many of whom are itching to turn public schools into religious academies, Illinois lawmakers should stop meddling in prayer and get back to the business of running a secular government. It appears that some Illinois lawmakers are doing just that. The Illinois House of Representatives recently passed a new law that would reverse course and make the moment of silence optional once again.
The Illinois House acted after a flood of complaints came in from teachers, administrators and parents. The law, these people asserted, is vague, confusing and poorly worded. School districts weren't quite sure how to enact it. The target audience is confused and angry. This is a strong signal that the law is a dud. Illinois senators should follow suit and ditch it.
P.S. Today's my last day with Americans United. I've been toiling away for the organization since January 2003. My time has been exceptionally well spent. The nation's Religious Right zealots comprise an ignoble movement, and it has been a pleasure working with a group dedicated to scuttling that movement's desire to trash freedom for theocracy. I'm continuing on in advocacy work elsewhere in D.C., but I'll remain a fan and supporter of Americans United's vigilant support of freedom. I hope you do, too.