Judge sides with atheist, strikes down moment of silence law

Published: 1/21/2009 5:01 PM | Updated: 1/21/2009 5:58 PM

A U.S. District Court judge struck down the state's much-maligned "moment of silence" law, ruling that it was too coercive and crossed the First Amendment line barring government from establishing a religion.

Judge Robert W. Gettleman entered a permanent injunction banning enforcement of the law, ruling that its requirement that students must use the time for prayer or silent reflection amounted to a tacit endorsement of prayer.

"The statute is a subtle effort to force students at impressionable ages to contemplate religion," wrote Gettleman.

The law has not been in effect since May 2008, when Gettleman issued an injunction against enforcement of it statewide. The law had been challenged by Buffalo Grove atheist Robert Sherman and his daughter Dawn Sherman, who attends Buffalo Grove High School. She sued the school and the Illinois superintendent of education, who was defended by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Madigan's office said it was reviewing the order and hadn't yet reached a decision on whether to appeal.

"We applaud the judge's decision," said Adam Schwartz, an attorney with ACLU Illinois. "Prayer is a matter for students and parents, not politicians and school officials."

Gettleman's ruling suggested that the state is free to enact a moment of silence law that does not explicitly list prayer as an option.

Similar laws have been ruled constitutional, he noted.