School ‘prayer’ bill looks certainby John Kennedy | February 22nd, 2012
A measure that would let school boards authorize student-led “inspirational messages” – which critics condemn as a backdoor approach to allowing prayer in classrooms — cleared a House panel Wednesday and looks likely to become Florida law.
The legislation (CS/SB 98) cleared the Judiciary Committee on a 12-5 vote. Republicans sided with the measure that most Democrats opposed and called an unconstitutional attempt to inject religion into schools.
House sponsor Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, disagreed.
“Two words in this bill will withstand any challenge,” Van Zant said. “Those two words are ‘inspirational messages.’ With those two words, this bill is about free speech.”
But Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, said the bill’s phrasing only masked its true intent — to allow prayer in schools from kindergarten through high school.
“It’s just a euphemism for prayer, because we can’t say prayer,” Steinberg said.
The committee’s action Wednesday is likely the last stop before the bill goes to the House floor. The Senate, which historically is a tougher sell on such controversial social issues, has already approved the measure. Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t raised any concerns about the measure.
“I think this is going to pass, with His will,” Van Zant told the Post after the vote.
The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat, would allow school boards to adopt policies giving students authority to deliver “an inspirational message,” during the student portion of any assembly. Administrators, teachers, coaches and other school personnel would be prohibited from reviewing the message or editing it.
Democrats fighting the proposal warned the measure would at least ensnare school districts in lengthy and costly lawsuits over any policy they adopted.
Critics also said the legislation could make students from minority religions feel especially uncomfortable. Religious views at odds with those of some students could spark deep divisions, they warned.
An ‘inspirational message’ policy also could force school districts to allow equal time for students to counterpoint whatever view was initially expressed. Opponents also questioned whether schools could limit these talks — raising the specter that students could deliver weird or inappropriate messages about sex and race, or even anti-religious talks.
While the conservative Liberty Counsel earlier told the Post it opposed the legislation — fearing it would spark lengthy and costly lawsuits for school districts, it now has joined the Florida Family Policy Council in supporting the legislation.
“I opposed the original Senate bill because it allowed only non-sectarian and non-proselytizing messages, which means it required the state to censor student speech,” said Mat Staver, chairman and founder of the Liberty Counsel. “I believe students have the right to free speech. I support the amended version that removed the censorship language and which allows students to deliver a message of their choice.”