Girl, father fight new Illinois' law on moment of silence in school

Sunday, October 28, 2007

CHICAGO -- A 14-year-old girl and her outspoken atheist father filed a federal lawsuit Friday challenging a new Illinois law requiring a brief period of prayer or reflective silence at the start of every school day.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the law unconstitutional, said attorney Gregory Kulis, who represents Dawn Sherman, a freshman at Buffalo Grove High School, and her father Robert Sherman, a radio talk show host.

Kulis said the law is an attempt to inject religion into public schools in violation of the First Amendment. The suit also seeks a temporary restraining order to halt schools' obeying the law until the case is decided. A judge will consider that request at a hearing Monday.

The lawsuit names Gov. Rod Blagojevich and officials of Township High School District 214 as defendants. School district spokeswoman Venetia Miles said schools will continue to comply with the law.

Blagojevich spokesman Abby Ottenhoff said the law was passed over the governor's veto.

"We don't believe requiring time for reflection is the role of government," Ottenhoff said.

Sherman said he went to court after he asked the school board to ignore the law and was rebuffed. The school district informed him it would carry out the moment of silence during third period, beginning Tuesday, the lawsuit said.

"What we object to is Christians passing a law that requires the public school teacher to stop teaching during instructional time, paid for by the taxpayers, so that Christians can pray," Sherman told The Associated Press.

An Illinois law called the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act already allowed schools to observe a moment of silence if they wanted. A new measure changed just a single word: "may" observe became "shall" observe.

The Illinois law originally passed during the spring legislative session, but Blagojevich vetoed it, saying he had doubts about its constitutionality. Lawmakers overrode the veto this month.

It's not Sherman's first church-and-state lawsuit and not the first to involve his children. He has sought removal of religious symbols from city seals and a ban on Boy Scout meetings at public schools.

Some school administrators have complained the law is too ill-defined and puts many teachers and some students in an awkward position.

The Shermans may have legitimate concerns, but they are suing the wrong party when they target the school district, said Brian McCarthy, an attorney for the district.

"The General Assembly -- for better, worse, foolish or wise -- passed this law and it's not up to school districts to pick and choose which laws they follow," McCarthy said. "He needs to go after the entity that enforces that law."

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