Florida legislative proposal to allow student-led prayer likely to be enacted

After the Florida House, 88-27, overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow student-led prayer in public schools, reports the Times/Herald, it appears Gov. Rick Scott will sign the measure into law. Under the bill, local school districts would be able to vote to allow any student to deliver “inspirational messages” at public school events. Teachers and other school employees could not take part.

Sen. Gary Siplin, who shepherded the proposal, had said the concept of an “inspirational message” was open to interpretation. “It could be the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the Pledge of Allegiance, a blessing before a luncheon,” he said. “It could also be a prayer.” Others felt differently. “Everyone in this room knows that ‘inspirational messages’ means religious indoctrination,” said Rep. Jeff Clemens.

Supporters stressed that participation by students would be optional. Some said the measure would teach tolerance and restore order to classrooms. “Students are inundated with sex, gambling and all of the moral decay that’s on our televisions,” said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach. “It is time that we allowed … students to bring inspirational messages to share with each other.” Opponents fought back with fervor. Several challenged the bill’s constitutionality. Others worried it would lead to bullying — or to false information being spread in schools.

After the bill passed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida issued a stinging criticism, saying the policy would result in costly litigation for school districts. The Anti-Defamation League said it would support any lawsuits with an amicus brief. If Scott signs the bill into law as expected, it will be up to local school boards to make a decision on how to proceed.

Pinellas County School Board member Janet Clark said she doesn’t have a problem with students praying but worries about the level of wisdom some students might exercise. “Kids just don’t always have the best judgment, and I think it’s really touchy,” she said. Pasco County School Board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong acknowledged that the board will have to consider any action very carefully. “It’s going to put a lot of liability on us to come up with a policy that would be appropriate and meet all the constitutional requirements of separation of church and state,” she said.

Source: Times/Herald, 3/2/12, By Kathleen McGrory and Rebecca Catalanello

[Editor’s Note: In January 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Sunshine State News reporting that the bill, SB 98, had been introduced in the Florida Senate.  The report indicated that the bill would permit school districts to adopt resolutions allowing students to say inspirational messages, without backing or influence from the district or district employees, at school-sanctioned exercises or assemblies.]

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