Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Silence in the Courtroom

By Shawn Healy
My analysis of the mandatory moment of silence required at the start of the day at public schools across the State of Illinois led me to Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, and a national expert on the subject of religious liberty. In addition to being an objective voice in the ever-intense culture wars, Charles was a key component of the Freedom Museum's advisory panel and one of three lead curators on the initial project.

I sent Charles the text of the statute and asked him to consider it in light of the Alabama case I referenced on Wednesday, for it appeared that the Supreme Court struck down a similar law in 1985. He disagrees, claiming "...there is nothing unconstitutional about this law. The Alabama 'moment of silence' law was struck down because a majority of the Supreme Court saw the legislative history as evidence that the law was an attempt to return state-sponsored prayer to the public schools."

The distinction, then, lies in the law's legislative history, sure to be revisited with the inevitable legal challenges surfacing in the coming months and years as the statute is applied.

Charles also referred to the potential exception specified in Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion. She "...indicated...that a genuinely neutral 'moment of silence' would be constitutional. Legislators have been careful about how their propose and word these laws ever since. The fact that the Illinois law mentions prayer as one of the options for students during the silence does not make it unconstitutional. As long as school officials do not encourage or promote prayer during that time, then the moment of silence does not violate the First Amendment. Listing prayer as one of the (obvious) activities students may engage in while silent is fine as I read current law."

Charles suggests that similar laws have been implemented elsewhere (Virginia for one) without disturbing the "wall of separation" between church and state, with a few exceptions. As a result, he finds no evidence that the Illinois law "...violates the First Amendment and...doubt(s) it can be successfully challenged in court."

The matter of whether this is sound policy remains in dispute. Some suggest we tread ever closer to the slippery slope of knocking down the revered wall, but Charles dissents, at least in this case. He "...tend(s) to think it is an appropriate accommodation for those many Americans who believe time should be set aside in public schools to acknowledge God. Even though students may pray in public schools today-- alone or in groups -- many people still want some formal time that is set aside for prayer -- or at least the option of prayer. A genuinely neutral moment of silence is one way to accommodate those people without violating the First Amendment."

The master has spoken, and his pupils are better informed, as always. Thanks, Charles!


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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