State Politics

More freedom to pray in public school? It’s likely, but lawmakers have to compromise.

Drum Major Andre Young kneels in prayer in the doorway prior to performing with Miami Central High School band in May 2009. Lawmakers in Tallahassee want to fortify students’ and teachers’ rights to express their religious beliefs in Florida public schools.
Drum Major Andre Young kneels in prayer in the doorway prior to performing with Miami Central High School band in May 2009. Lawmakers in Tallahassee want to fortify students’ and teachers’ rights to express their religious beliefs in Florida public schools. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Lawmakers on either side of the Florida Capitol have different ideas on to what extent they should secure students’ and teachers’ rights to express religious beliefs in public schools — forcing the need for compromise before the Legislature can send a proposed law to the governor for his approval this spring.

A plan the Florida House approved Wednesday by a 114-3 vote fortifies basic rights to religious expression that are protected by the state and U.S. Constitutions. The Senate two weeks ago endorsed language that does that, too, but that also goes much further — by also requiring schools to give students a “limited public forum” to pray and otherwise express their beliefs at school assemblies and other school-sanctioned events.

MORE: “Florida Senate endorses religious expression in public schools”

The two proposals were originally identical, but a House committee quickly scaled back that chamber’s version to eliminate the more controversial elements that remain in the Senate-approved bill.

Those House changes earned unanimous votes and bipartisan praise in the two committees that vetted them. The House measure was led by Democratic Reps. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville and Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes.

(By comparison, the Senate bill passed on a party-line vote — with Sen. Daphne Campbell, of Miami Shores, being the only Democrat to join Republicans in support. Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley sponsored that bill.)

The House vote sends SB 436 back to the Senate — where senators can either make further changes or agree to the House language, which would then send the bill to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk to be signed into law. Senators could potentially take it up as early as Thursday, but it’s more likely to happen next week.

The House language earned its first opposition on the floor Wednesday when three Democrats — Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Amy Mercado, both of Orlando, and Joseph Abruzzo, of Boynton Beach — voted “no.”

During discussion the day before, Smith raised concerns about the constitutionality of the measure.

“We are potentially blurring the lines of the wall we have very clearly erected between church and state, and we could potentially be allowing school personnel to use the machinery of the state to promote a religious agenda,” he said. (Daniels responded that she had no concerns about that happening, which sparked brief applause from the Republican-led chamber.)

Just before Wednesday’s vote, Daniels said her bill “is not for people who do not want to pray. It’s voluntary and non-intrusive. It gives liberty to people who need the opportunity to pray in Florida schools.”

She also shared details of her personal and family history that she said helped inspire her to seek this change in state law.

She described how she was “a member of the fastest relay team in the nation” while attending Florida State University “but from a full scholarship, I went to the streets of Frenchtown, a few blocks away from here [the Florida Capitol] when I became a drug addict and one of the people you passed on a corner.”

“I’m standing here by a power much higher than Kim,” said Daniels, who is now a minister, a former Jacksonville City Council member and a freshman lawmaker this year.

The House and Senate have to pass identical bills, and some kind of compromise is almost certain.

The two chambers’ bills were each fast-tracked this session, after being designated priorities by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. Each bill had only two committee hearings before going to the floor; bills typically are heard by three committees.

The House language makes explicitly clear that students have the freedom to:

▪ Express their religious beliefs in class assignments;

▪ Wear jewelry with religious symbols;

▪ Organize prayer groups or religious clubs that would have access to school facilities as any secular activity group already does.

It also would guarantee teachers and staff the ability to participate in student-initiated religious activities before or after the school day.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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