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Illinois prayer in school laws amended

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The debate over prayer in public schools could soon be much more vocal, thanks to a recent bill signed by Gov. George Ryan.

HB 4117, signed by Ryan on August 22, asserts Illinois public school students’ right to “voluntarily engage in individually initiated, non-disruptive prayer” while in the classroom.

The legislation amended the Silent Reflection Act, under which only public grade school teachers were allowed to initiate a moment of silent prayer or reflection at the beginning of each school day.

The amended Act, now renamed the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act, now allows any student, including high school students, to initiate a “non-disruptive” prayer at any time while in school, said Karen Figcutter, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ryan.

“We felt it was necessary to clarify the rights of students to silent prayer in the classroom,” Gov. Ryan said in a press release. “Students have the right to reflect silently at any time, not just at the beginning of the school day when the teacher and the entire class are involved.”

Figcutter said Gov. Ryan felt signing the bill was a “prudent” move, especially considering the fact that the bill passed the House 116-1 and the senate unanimously.

However, both supporters and opponents of the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act claim that, despite its name, the legislation opens the door for vocal prayer in school.

“It’s a misnomer,” said Jim Senyszyn, the state director of American Atheists. “The prayer part is actually meant to be out loud.”

Senszyn said that the language of the bill is ambitious, and never states that the prayer should be silent, but rather “individually initiated.” This ambiguity, he said, also allows the legislation to skirt recent Supreme Court decisions prohibiting school officials from leading and mandating prayer in public schools.

“This (bill) says that as long as someone else (besides school officials) initiates (prayer), it’s ok,” Senyszyn said. “Students can’t vote, can’t be on a jury, but they are supposed to exercise judgement over whether this is constitutionally right?”

The bill, Senyszyn said, is simply meant to allow school administrations to absolve themselves of responsibility regarding school prayer.

But, Senyszyn said that religious differences will force school administrations to become involved.

“What if a Catholic wants to use rosary beads (during prayer)?” he asked. “Some students want to do it one way, others another way. Who is going to choose the way (the prayer is given)?”

These differences, Senyszyn said, could also “lead to shouting matches that the school district will have to resolve.

“Some of these people bear witness pretty loud,” he said.

Senyszyn said that he was worried the bill was the first step towards mandatory prayer in public schools.

“We’re afraid (prayer) will devolve into a regular classroom exercise,” he said.

State Rep. Jonathan Wright (R-Hartsburg) , a co-sponsor of the bill, agreed that the purpose of the bill was to promote vocal prayer in schools.

“That was certainly the intent from my standpoint,” Wright said. “I never felt like there was a need for a silent prayer law, since students can already (do that).”

The word “silent” in the new Act’s title was used only because the legislation his bill modified had that word in its title, he said.

Wright said the purpose of the bill was to educate school officials as to students’ school prayer rights.

“There are a number of groups who use the fear of the unknown and intimidation to keep people from using their constitutional rights,” he said. “The ACLU will come to a school principal and say ‘we will sue (over a school prayer issue).’ This (bill) gives them a quick reference in dealing with these issues.”

Wright disagreed with Senyszyn’s prediction that the bill would lead to mandatory prayer services in public schools.

“There is nothing that could even be construed as mandating school prayer,” he said. “They need to remember the first amendment clause. We ought not get to a point where a student cannot (be able to pray).”

Wright also came under fire from state representative Jeff Schoenburg, D-Evanston, the only legislator to vote against the bill. Schoenburg said while said he “could’ve easily voted with everyone else,” he wanted to protest statements made by Wright in an April State Journal-Register article that the bill might help students change their religion.

“Wright seemed to be encouraging students to leave the faith in which they are raised,” Schoenburg said. “I found that attitude very troubling. As a person of faith myself, I strongly believe that it’s not the role of public institutions to be mixing into families’ religious affairs.”

The bill itself, Schoenburg said, was “repetitive and relatively harmless.

“It does nothing but reiterate existing law,” he said.

At Charleston High School, many students and staff supported the idea of student-initiated prayer.

“It’s never been illegal to pray in public schools,” said John Broom, principal of Charleston High School. “It’s clearly illegal (for a school official) to lead students in prayer, but for an individual, on their own, there’s this thing called the first amendment that allows people the right to do it.”

Charleston High School students agreed.

“It’s all good, as long as it’s not mandatory,” said junior Jeremy Henson.

Sophomore Mahwish Yousaf said she supported school prayer “as long as it doesn’t conflict with classes.”

Others agreed.

“I think it’s cool as long as you do it on your own time,” said freshman Adam Larson.

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The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.
Illinois prayer in school laws amended