Daughter of noted atheist sues over moment of silence in schools

Published: 10/26/2007 12:39 PM | Updated: 10/26/2007 10:23 PM

Acting on a promise made earlier this month, 14-year-old Dawn Sherman on Friday filed a lawsuit against Northwest Suburban Township High School District 214 to fight the state-mandated moment of silence.

The district is planning to implement the law on Tuesday during morning announcements. The suit is believed to be the first seeking to overturn the new law.

Sherman's father, Rob, said they will be seeking an injunction Monday to prevent that from happening. The lawsuit was filed through Rob -- an atheist activist -- since Dawn is a minor.

He said the law violates the separation of church and state because it requires a moment of reflection on a daily basis.

"People shouldn't be stopping my education for prayer that they could be doing any time in the 18 hours they have the rest of the day," Dawn said.

Although the law doesn't require children to pray, Sherman said the name -- Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act -- indicates that intent.

"The legislature does not have the authority nor the right in the constitution to promote religion in the public schools," said Gregory Kulis, Sherman's attorney. "It is clear by reading the act and the legislative history, the legislature is promoting religion."

Venetia Miles, spokeswoman for District 214, said she hasn't seen the lawsuit and can't comment on it.

However, she said the district will continue with the moment of silence unless otherwise ordered because it has a responsibility to obey state law.

Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, a group focused on separation of church and state, said the law seems to be a backdoor attempt to bring government-sponsored prayer into school.

"Teachers have the authority already to call for a moment of silence," he said. "When the legislature starts meddling in something like this, it's obvious they're doing it to appeal to voters."

However, he said it's up to the courts to decide where to draw the line on prayer and a moment of silence. Because the law gives prayer as only one option during the moment of silence, Conn said it's a little more complicated.

"It's hard to say where (the courts) will come down on this," Conn said.

State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, said when he sponsored the bill in the House, he never intended prayer to become an issue.

"If I for a second thought that the intent of the bill was to introduce prayers into public schools, I would not have sponsored the bill," he said. "It's definitely very clear that there has to be a line between church and state."

Crespo said the law doesn't give teachers a license to instill their beliefs into students. Instead, he said it's a chance to take a moment to pause in the midst of a busy day and reflect.

"I don't understand the merits of the lawsuit," he said. "Again, this is not asking (students) to pray."

Besides naming District 214 board members and Superintendent David Schuler, the lawsuit filed in federal court also names Patrice Johannes, principal at Buffalo Grove High School, which Dawn attends, Dawn's third-period teacher, Binh Huynh -- who would oversee the moment of silence -- and Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Blagojevich vetoed the bill but was overridden by the state House and Senate. Sherman said the governor is cited because he is responsible for enforcing state law.

If the judge doesn't agree to an injunction, Dawn said she would just sit at her desk and study for that moment. She's hoping, though, that eventually the law will be taken off the books statewide.