TALLAHASSEE After winning the overwhelming approval of the Florida House on Thursday, a bill that would allow student-led prayer in public schools seems all but certain to become law.
The bill’s backers say Gov. Rick Scott has told them he would sign the legislation.
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.
The bill has some local support. Three of Manatee County’s five school board members say they would sup
port student-initiated prayer in the county’s schools.
Cautioning that they haven’t had a chance to actually read the bill, Bob Gause, Barbara Harvey and Harry Kinnan said Thursday they would be comfortable with a local policy empowering students to lead any form of prayer. Karen Carpenter and Julie Aranibar did not respond to requests for comment.
“I support the concept,” Gause said. “Football players already pray after games. We already allow voluntary prayer in schools. So I’m not sure what the difference is between the bill and what’s already happening.”
Like Gause, Harvey and Kinnan said students are already allowed to pray in schools. Harvey and Gause also volunteered that while they believe in the Christian faith, they respect those who do not.
The lopsided 88-27 vote in the House came after an hour of impassioned debate.
Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat who shepherded the proposal, has said the concept of an “inspirational message” is 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.”
Other lawmakers felt differently and said so on the House floor.
“Everyone in this room knows that ‘inspirational messages’ means religious indoctrination,” said Rep. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat.
Supporters stressed that participation by students would be optional. Some said the measure would teach tolerance and restore order to classrooms.
“Our students are inundated with sex, gambling and all of the moral decay that’s on our televisions and radios,” said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach. “It is time that we allowed... students to bring inspirational messages to share with each other.”
But 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.
“What I’m concerned about [is that] the bill’s sponsor said these kids could say anything they want,” said Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie. “They could distort well-established historical facts. A child could preach that the Holocaust never occurred.”
The vote transcended party lines, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans in support of the bill.
Among them: Cynthia Stafford of Miami, who said she had received emails, calls, letters and faxes from constituents wanting her to approve the prayer proposal.
Rep. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Democrat, signed on as a co-sponsor.
“Look at what just happened in Ohio,” said Campbell, referencing a school shooting that left three teenagers dead. “The kids need to have prayer at school.”
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.
“If any local school districts follow the Legislature’s suggestion and moves to allow religious speeches and prayers at official school functions, it will trigger a landslide of litigation,” executive director Howard Simon said in a statement.
The Anti-Defamation League chimed in, too, saying it would support any lawsuits with an amicus brief.
But Siplin was unapologetic, saying the bill will “stand legal muster.”
“I hope they have some cash in the bank,” he said of any parties considering a lawsuit. “We’re going to be seeking attorney’s fees from them if they file a frivolous lawsuit.”
Siplin said he was confident Scott would give the legislation his blessing. “He said [to] send it over, he’ll sign it and have a ceremony for it,” Siplin said of the governor.
Scott did not publicly say he would sign the bill, but indicated he had no reservations about it. “As you know, I believe in Jesus Christ and I believe individuals should have a right to say a prayer,” he said.
If the bill gets signed into law, it will be up to local school boards to make a decision.
Miami-Dade School Board Chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman said she would be open to the idea. “But I would have to make sure that it is constitutional first,” she said.
Broward School Board officials did not return calls for comment.
Miami-Dade School Board member Wilbert “Tee” Holloway, who repeatedly pushed for school prayer when he served in the Florida Legislature from 2000 to 2007, said he would be especially happy to see the proposal carried out.
“In my communities, people have asked for this,” he said. “I would definitely be in favor of it.”