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Some clergy urge Scott to veto prayer bill

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Two ministers and a rabbi, backed by Florida groups which promote divisions between church and state, urged Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday to veto legislation that would allow student-led prayer at school events.

Scott has indicated he supports the measure (SB 98), which allows school districts to enact policies allowing “inspirational messages” at school assemblies from kindergarten through high school. But Rev. Harold Brockus of Pinellas County, Rev. Harry Parrott of Clay County, and Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Flagler County, said the legislation is misguided and violates religious liberty.

The clergy also represtent area chapters of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“This most basic liberty is built on a foundation of the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the freedom from government interference with religion,” the clergy wrote Scott.  “Without one part of the foundation, religious freedom will falter.  And thus, religious practice and teaching must remain the province of our homes, families, and houses of worship rather than imposed by majority will upon our public-school students.”

The bill 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.

Florida law currently allows students to have a short period — no more than two minutes — at the start of each school day for silent prayer or meditation, and it allows volunteer prayer groups to meet at schools.

The legislation was approved by the House and Senate, with most Democrats opposing it. Critics warned courts would likely find the measure unconstitutional, and force school districts into costly legal battles if they chose to enact a policy authorizing inspirational messages.

Schools could allow ‘inspirational messages’ under bill sent to Gov. Scott

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by John Kennedy

After fierce debate, the House approved a measure Thursday allowing school boards to let students deliver “inspirational messages” in classrooms — a move critics say is aimed at promoting unconstitutional school prayer.

The measure (CS/SB 98) was already OK’d by the Senate and now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it into law. The House voted 88-27.

But the legislation divided lawmakers — with many Democrats warning it would subject students from minority religions to possible discrimination.

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, said she recalled growing up as one of eight Jewish children in an elementary school, where she was uncomfortable whenever religious matters were discussed. She said it was important for lawmakers to protect children and their constitutional rights.

“Our constitution protects us from state-sponsored prayer, and this bill is clearly unconstitutional,” Berman said.

But Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, recalled that “inspirational messages” were allowed in schools until the early 1960s. In those days, he said, the most common classroom problems were chewing gum and talking in class, compared to today’s issues of drugs, sex and violence.

“I believe…this will improve some of the problems we have in school,” Van Zant told the House.

The bill 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.

Florida law currently also allows students to have a brief period — no more than two minutes — at the start of each school day for silent prayer or meditation. Volunteer prayer groups also are authorized to meet at schools.

Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, said any school board that sought to enact the policy would be ensnared in a lawsuit.

“The only message we’re going to be sending is ‘hello school boards, get out your checkbooks,’” Slosberg said.

Student ‘inspirational messages’ poised for final passage

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A measure allowing public school students to offer ‘inspirational messages’ at assemblies is set for final passage tomorrow despite objections from Democrats and civil rights groups that the proposal is unconstitutional and could prompt bullying.

After tomorrow’s almost certain passage by the Florida House – the Senate has already signed off on the measure – the bill will go to Gov. Rick Scott for approval. Scott has said he will likely sign the measure into law.

The House spent more than an hour on questions about school prayer before rolling the bill over for a vote tomorrow. Democrats questioned the measure’s constitutionality and raised concerns about putting students of different faiths at odds and potential bullying of students whose faiths makes them a minority.

But the arguments failed to convince the proposal’s House and Senate sponsors – both present during a question-and-answer period on the House floor – to back away from their bill (SB 98).

Sen. Gary Siplin, a Democrat from Orlando, crafted the measure using court rulings outlining constitutional shortcomings in school prayer practices. But the ACLU has said the measure remains unconstitutional and will likely wind up in court.

The proposal would give school boards permission to allow students to offer prayers at mandatory school assemblies as long as adults are not involved in the creation of the prayers and do not participate in the invocations.

School boards can already adopt such policies, argued Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

“Why do we need a bill to fix a problem if there isn’t one?” Bullard, a teacher, asked.

School board members are confused about what they are allowed to do when it comes to prayer, said House sponsor Charles Van Zandt, R-Keystone Heights.

And Van Zandt said the measure will give all students the opportunity to practice their constitutional rights to free speech.

Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, asked what the definition of an ‘inspirational message’ outlined in the bill would be and if the Aryan Satanic Manifesto would qualify.

“That would be the student’s prerogoative because of our First Amendment right of free speech,” Van Zandt said.

Some Jewish Democrats asked if the prayers would create divisiveness among students of different religions and might give students with extreme views an opportunity to bloviate about them to a captive audience.

“There is divisiveness in opinions among our students regarding almost any aspect of any message,” Van Zandt said.

School ‘prayer’ bill looks certain

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 by John Kennedy

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.”


Senate passes school prayer bill

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

After a heartfelt debate from both sides, the Florida Senate approved a measure authorizing student-led prayers at schools as long as adults are not involved.

The “inspirational messages” proposal (SB 98), proposed by Orlando Democratic Sen. Gary Siplin and approved by a 31-8 vote, would allow school boards to adopt policies granting students the right to have prayers at any school assembly but school administrators, teachers, coaches or other personnel from scrutinizing or participating in the prayers.

A handful of Democrats argued against the bill, saying students already have the opportunity to pray privately objecting that the measure could create divisiveness.

“We don’t have an issue in the state of Florida with the lack of ability of public school students to pray openly.
What we want to do is keep our public school kids with the one inspirational message they all need: study, study, study.
When they come to the school they can park their religious beliefs at home,” said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who is Catholic.

But Sen. Joe Negron argued that schools have gone too far in limiting students’ speech.

“We’ve gone from one extreme now to the other extreme. We’ve gone from neutrality toward religion to hostility to religion,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.

Some senators of both parties who previoulsy voted against school prayer bills spoke in favor of the measure, including a warning from that the bill may backfire.

Inspirational messages are OK, Sen. Nancy Detert said.

“And when it becomes not OK, when you get little smart-alecky kids who are going to proselytize the Koran…That’s when your school board should shut it down,” Detert, R-Venice, said.

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