By Chris Magee
On Wednesday a federal judge ruled that the Illinois law requiring a moment of silence in public schools is unconstitutional, ruling that it crosses the church and state divide.
I didn't like the law myself, but for different reasons than those cited in the ruling. It's not the constitutional basis I question, but the necessity of the law itself.
My problem with rulings in all church vs. state cases is that I don't believe the Constitution mandates a separation of religion from public life. The full text of the amendment is as follows:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
What this amendment says is that Congress cannot establish an official state religion for the entire nation, nor can it prevent people from exercising their own individual religions. The United States had just finished fighting a war of independence against a nation that had one state religion and persecuted all others. That was the reason why the ancestors of many of our founding fathers came here. They still wanted religion in their life and their government, but they wanted to be able to choose which one.
But the meaning of this amendment depends on whether you tend to view the constitution from a strict constructionist or an activist perspective. The first believes that the document means what it says and nothing more. The second believes that the document is a framework whose meaning can change over time as the situation changes.
Debating the true meaning of the written word is fine when you're talking about poetry or song lyrics or even theology. But the law should be clear. The law means what it says. There are not multiple meanings. I am a strict constructionist; I get upset when I feel the Constitution is being misinterpreted whether or not it fits my personal beliefs.
I don't believe the Constitution forbids a moment of silence law, but that's not why I'm against it. I believe the Constitution allows religion in public life, but that doesn't mean it's always a good idea. Just because you can do something doesn't always mean you should. I don't support the moment of silence law because I don't think it accomplishes anything.
I remember when this law was passed, those who advocated for it were spinning it to try to say that these busy students would be taking advantage of this minute of silence to be still and quiet and reflect on their lives.
Give me a break.
It is a rare child who has such a strongly developed spiritual side that he would be silently reflecting before the beginning of the school day. Sending text messages? Sure. Joking around with friends? Definitely. But getting more in touch with God or nature? I don't think so. These aren't young Thoreaus out on Walden Pond grappling with the spiritual secrets of the universe. Young children aren't going to get any benefit out of reflection time.
I think religion is great, and I believe a sincere belief in a higher power and a set of moral codes can make someone a better person. But I also know you cannot force it on someone. Making them be quiet or asking them to pray isn't going to accomplish anything if they are not receptive. There are a few children of deeply religious families who will have at adopted a religious mindset. They don't need a special prayer time at school because they will find the time if it is important to them. For everyone else, it's just a dumb waste of time. As St. Paul said, "When I was a child, I thought like a child." Adults can't expect children to take these adult concepts seriously.
This moment of silence could actually be counterproductive to the purprose for which it was intended. What happens to those who talk? Are they punished, in essence punished for not being mature enough to pray? Do the students for whom it's a joke make fun of those they see praying? Are they labeled "that weird Jesus kid?" That's how kids are; they latch on to anything different and make fun of it.
Everyone comes to religion in their own time and circumstances. It is a matter for families to tackle on their own. The public school system has no business getting involved.