A bill aimed at protecting displays of religious faith in public schools passed the Senate on nearly party-line vote Thursday, while a more-limited version moved toward the House floor.
The Senate voted 23-13 to approve its bill (SB 436, see below), after a sometimes-emotional debate. Sen. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, joined Republicans in voting for the legislation.
Supporters of the legislation said it would largely reaffirm court rulings on First Amendment rights while signaling to school districts what should and shouldn’t be allowed. They also rejected suggestions that the bill was intended to favor some religious convictions at the expense of others.
“This isn’t protecting a faith,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the bill. “It’s protecting all people’s freedom to express their hearts.”
The proposal would extend protection to religious activities and organizations and seek to prevent discrimination against students or school employees based on their faith. It would also require school districts to approve a “limited public forum” policy for student speakers.
But in so doing, the bill vastly expands permissible religious expression in public schools during school hours. Provisions of the bill protecting religious expression in dress, coursework, art work and persona expression re-state protections already in state and federal law, and in both federal and state constitutions. But the bill goes much further into untested territory in Florida. For example, the proposal would allow students to engage in organized prayer groups during the school day and with the participation–though not the sponsorship–of school personnel. Such religious activities may be freely advertised and announced across the school, and school districts are to develop policies enabling student speakers to essentially proselytize during school activities, including sports events and graduations, where students and people of different faiths, or no faith, usually gather and are a captive audience.
The U.S. Supreme Court has maintained that any religious expression in the context of widely–even if voluntary–school-sponsored events would be coercive to those not necessarily inclined to follow the preached beliefs, and would therefore be illegal.
“The school district’s supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places subtle and indirect public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a 1993 decision. “A reasonable dissenter of high school age could believe that standing or remaining silent signified her own participation in, or approval of, the group exercise, rather than her respect for it. And the State may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting. Since adolescents are often susceptible to peer pressure, especially in matters of social convention, the State may no more use social pressure to enforce orthodoxy than it may use direct means. The embarrassment and intrusion of the religious exercise cannot be refuted by arguing that the prayers are of a de minimis character, since that is an affront to the rabbi and those for whom the prayers have meaning, and since any intrusion was both real and a violation of the objectors’ right.”
Supporters of the Florida legislation claim students have, for example, been told they can’t use a religious figure in a paper about role models or can’t bring Bibles to school.
“It’s time to stop persecuting students for their religious beliefs when grading assignments, or limiting the reading texts just because they may contain religious material,” said Shawn Frost, president of the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, at a House Education Committee meeting where that chamber’s bill was approved Thursday.
Opponents, though, portrayed the bills as an unnecessary measure that could lead to some children being ostracized if they don’t join student-led religious displays.
“I believe that there is already time for prayer and expression, and I don’t believe that isolated incidents should then be an impetus for a law that really will create, I believe, more misunderstanding than understanding,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.
Added Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale: “The right to religious belief is not being taken away if we don’t pass this bill.”
But while the Senate debate over the legislation has been polarizing, the version of the bill in the normally more partisan House has moved through quickly and largely unopposed.
The House Education Committee vote Thursday was unanimous — though three Democrats weren’t there to vote — following similar approval at a subcommittee. The House measure (HB 303) is also sponsored by a pair of Democrats: Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville and Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes.
That version, though, does not include the requirement for school districts to approve a “limited public forum” policy for student speakers. Such policies would give student speakers more leeway in their comments at school events.
Baxley, who said he used the original House language for his bill, suggested after the Senate vote Thursday that the difference could make reaching an agreement problematic if the House insisted.
“In the process, they kind of watered theirs down a little bit, and we really like the constraints that were in the bill to make it function,” Baxley said. “Because otherwise, I don’t know there’s anything being done.”
–FlaglerLive and the News Service of Florida