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The Legislature’s Mullahs Threaten
Religious Freedom in Florida Schools

| March 31, 2017

religious expression public schools

Even Christ would be alarmed. (© FlaglerLive)

In parts of Florida, as in many parts of the South, one has to get used to governments flouting the First Amendment’s establishment clause. That’s the part that bars government from sponsoring religion. Some governments here have the good sense to respect the clause, some don’t, among them Bunnell, our beloved little town that always begins its city commission meetings as if it were a conclave of Plymouth Colony: city commissioners themselves lead the congregation in Christian prayer, a practice even the Supreme Court’s very permissive 2014 ruling on prayer at local government meetings would not allow. No one complains in Bunnell because every third house is a church, and heretics tend to be closeted there.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive.com flaglerlive But heretics—by which I mean anyone who’s not a Christian, atheists and fanatical doubters included—are everywhere in our schools, always the advance guard of the nation’s magnificently growing diversity. For the most part they’ve been protected by an equally magnificent respect for secular public schools.

Unfortunately, Florida law may be about to change, and not for the better. The Senate last week easily approved a proposal that would expand religious currency in public schools. The bill’s proponents pretend that it does nothing more than protect religious expression. If they were right, the bill wouldn’t be needed, because religious expression is already greatly protected, even in public schools. This bill encourages religious expression. I won’t say that it explicitly encourages Christian expression. But that’s its intent, and that will be its consequence in districts where self-righteous crusaders have the sort of majorities they interpret as their god-given right not only to flaunt their religion but to impose it Bunnell-style.


It is the arrogance of belief, the presumption not only that belief should be paraded on one’s sleeves—which goes against Christ’s instructions to pray in private—but that everyone else should suffer the flaunting. It’s not enough that religious expression has free rein at your church, your synagogue, your mosque, your home, your friend’s home, your aunt’s home, your parents’ home, your school if you choose to attend a parochial one, your private business if it’s so inclined, your clubs, your retreats, your podiatrist’s office or your retirement community, if you’re that insistent. Now you have to bring it into public spaces, the only spaces that remain, or should remain, relatively free of overt religious intrusions.

“A student,” the new law reads, “may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that a student may engage in secular activities or expression.” It sounds fair. But it’s not lawful, particularly that part about engaging in religious activity during the school day. The First Amendment says nothing about prohibiting the establishment of English, math and Spanish class, chess and Key and thespian clubs. It explicitly prohibits the use of government as a conduit for religion, which is what this new law would allow. It would make public schools the conduit of students’ religious presumptions.


The personal right of religious expression in public schools is already inviolate. This bill would promore more organized religion on school grounds.


If you have doubts about the bill’s intent to implicitly peddle religion, note that it is silent on protecting people of no faith, at least as “faith” is narrowly and often self-servingly defined by traditionally faith-based assumptions. (Spinoza had more faith than the combined faith quotient of registrants at the annual Southern Baptist Convention, but Christians and fellow-Jews still branded him an atheist and heretic.) People of no faiths warrant the same  level of respect and protection as more conventional believers. But Senate Bill 436 (sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley; its House equivalent is sponsored by Jacksonville’s Kimberly Daniels) doesn’t care to extend those protections. “Atheists,” as they are also inaccurately called, might as well not exist. The silence says it all. A bill posing as an anti-discrimination measure is premised on discrimination. Believers are chosen. Non-believers are not.

Of course the First Amendment also prohibits constraints on the free exercise of religion. But not where government has authority to elevate religion in any way. The distinction is often lost on sophists of equal protection. Evidence shreds the sophistry.

The first part of the bill lays out prohibitions on discrimination against religious viewpoints or expression, coursework, artwork, clothing, accessories, jewelry and so on. Those are superfluous prohibitions, put there more to garner the “of course” vote and mask the more insidious intent further down than to let the obvious prevail: No one is ever kept from wearing whatever religious symbols or even clothing an individual chooses. We’re not like France or Switzerland, those hypocrites of freedom, where the burka is banned. No one is ever kept from praying. I find such scenes moving, whether it’s a Christian family holding hands before a meal at a fast food joint or a Muslim laying out a prayer rug in the discreet corner of an Interstate travel stop and bowing to the East. The same standards apply in schools, where no student is ever kept from saying prayers, though it’s only reasonable to expect a student to pay attention to Bernard Shaw in English class rather than mumble the Lord’s Prayer. That’s not me speaking, it’s Christ: Render unto Caesar, and so on. (A little Biblical history wouldn’t hurt: it is often secularism’s best defense.)

The difference is when the school becomes a de facto sponsor of the activity, its conduit or facilitator. That’s what the religious expression bill does. It doesn’t respect religious expression. It proscribes it. It requires school districts to draft policies enabling it, thus immediately making the district a religious sponsor—not of a specific religion, but of religion, which is bad enough–and it goes so far as requiring the rules to enable student-led prayer groups that may include faculty and staff, and to allow students to gab about god at school events, with large, captive assemblies such as graduations, as long as they note that the school district doesn’t necessarily endorse the student’s viewpoint.

But religious allowances aren’t made more permissible by disclaimers. The religious allowance is the violation. Schools are places of learning for all. And personal expression of religious beliefs remains absolutely inviolate. But students inclined to have prayer groups during the school day or to launch religious sermons to school assemblies would not have that chance but for the public setting they would be using (actually, abusing) to exercise a freedom they would not otherwise have, and that they can exercise in virtually every other imaginable setting. Religion isn’t like that good school breakfast too many students can only get at school, because of pervasive poverty. For rich or poor, black, white, brown, yellow or green, religion is an American contagion: hardly any space is free of it. Lawbreaking aside, the insistence on extending the contagion to public schools beyond the plenty of pieties already allowed and exercised is majority overkill at the expense of minorities either secular or not belonging to the reigning religious kahuna. It is cloaking organized religion in the seemingly innocent artifice of student initiative.

Five years ago Floridians had the good sense to repeal the proposed “Florida Religious Freedom Amendment” to the state constitution. Contrary to its Orwellian wording, the amendment would have favored religion at public expense by allowing public dollars to be used for religious purposes such as subsidizing parochial schools. Then as now, the amendment was presented as equal-playing-field argument, pretending that religious organizations should be treated like everyone else, that they should be worthy of public money like everyone else, thus missing the point of the prohibition on mingling church and state and its reason: the moment you give government a hand in governing religion in any way, religion is adulterated, sectarian hierarchies are established, favors and disfavors muck up clericalism as if it were just another swamp of special interests, and public places become the minefield of unintended consequences. I’d like to see some of our school districts react when a Louis Farrakhan-like young Muslim—or a Calvinist mullah, for that matter—decides to turn a school assembly into a jeremiad on chosen races or predestination. As Christ himself once said, don’t go there.

We already have religious freedom in schools, and it’s working very well. We don’t need to canonize it.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him @PierreTristam. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.

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20 Responses for “The Legislature’s Mullahs Threaten
Religious Freedom in Florida Schools”

  1. John dolan says:

    They do things a little different here Pierre. They pray together on Sunday,and prey on each other on Monday. Viva la france`.

  2. Richard Smith says:

    Government needs to keep their hands off of religious expression and religion needs to stay out of the government. And schools should NOT be mandating that students must take a course on the Koran or any other religion. Plus people need to be respectful of other people’s beliefs except when it comes to anyone who takes their beliefs to the extreme such as people who are radical and obsessive with their beliefs and want to PUSH or CONVERT their belief’s onto others.

  3. Sw says:

    Long winded much to do about a practice already ingrained here. The Schools have bigger fish to fry, problems to solve than worry about a Prayer or two or Pledge of Allegiance etc…Kids attend to learn something maybe they will move on….

  4. Al Dente says:

    Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and especially here in the U.S.. It’s gonna be a real hoot to see all the xians in their hijabs being forced to worship Allah. Then again,anyone who believes in shape shifting talking snakes, people living in the belly of a big fish,raising the dead,worshiping a person who never existed deserve whatever they get. Rock on,Allah!

  5. Mark says:

    As usual you spin the law to suit your agenda. The “Congress” (last I checked that is those people that sit and argue in the U.S. Capitol) “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” (self explanatory), “or prohibiting the FREE exercise thereof” (what part of that statement don’t you understand?) Thomas Jefferson’s letter isn’t law, and it is taken out of context as things usually are by people with an agenda. I can “exercise” my religion anyway and wherever I want to. Period. If it happens to be in a building built with tax dollars, tough sh&t. Tell “Congress” to stop opening their sessions with an opening prayer or remove the Congressional Chaplains and see what happens.

  6. JasonB says:

    Mark, my guess is you’ll soon change your tune when Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, Satanists, and all the other religions you don’t follow start exercising their rights as well.

  7. flagler1 says:

    What about “In God we trust” on our coins?

  8. ed james says:

    simply disgusting!!

  9. Bill18 says:

    Only in America

  10. Merrill Shapiro says:

    What a great analysis! Moreover, the Florida Legislature has all of us paying for religious education through the Florida Corporate Tax Scholarship scheme. Yes! The mullahs are very busy!

  11. Mark101 says:

    Just think about the Native Americans that lived in this country before explorers came and screwed it up. How about a article explaining what our ancestors did to come close to destroying a race of people and their beliefs. People force a lot of idea’s upon others without considering the original culture in a given place. Just because some are new in the US doesn’t mean your idea’s are the way IT SHOULD BE. I’m not sure if we went into the middle east a started throwing our idea’s on religion around it would be readily accepted.

  12. Sherry says:

    Here’s the kernel of the nut of this situation. . . our “brain trust” (LOL!) of Republican politicians consider “religious” beliefs and practice to apply only to “Christian” beliefs and practice because in their close minded stupidity they only recognize ONE religion. . . “Christianity”. In their thinking. . . since there is NO other religion. . . they consider the word “religion” to be exactly the same as “Christian” and the word “God” to mean only the “christian” god.

    I agree with JasonB. . . when the myriad of “religious” practices. . . from ALL religions. . . start disrupting the school day, there will be “hell” to pay. . . that is IF you believe in hell.

    There is certainly wisdom in the thinking of our founders. . . who believed in the “Separation of Church and State”..

  13. Knightwatch says:

    Our freedom of, and even more important, from religion, is under persistent attack by cult-like groups led by some of the most fanatical and unhinged religious leaders like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham. Then there’s “churches” like the infamous Westboro Baptist church in Kansas. There are far too many of these egregious examples who insist only they have all the answers and only their version of religion should permeate our schools, our government and our lives.

    And worse, much worse, are the alt-right state and federal legislators who “feed the flock” by enacting laws that clearly and dangerously trade faith for votes at the expense of those who do not share their beliefs.

    We must be on constant watch and fight back hard at those who would create a new American dark age.

  14. The Ghost of America says:

    Well mark, i encourage you to try exercising the parts of your religion that involve taking slaves, raping women, and stoning nonbelievers and see how well that works out for you.

  15. Bill says:

    Amazing how once again the left uses its own misguided version of the Constitution. ~Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;~ so just where is it in the constitution that says ones religious beliefs and practice must NOT be visible in public?? From this article ~ It’s not enough that religious expression has free rein at your church, your synagogue, your mosque, your home, your friend’s home, your aunt’s home, your parents’ home, your school if you choose to attend a parochial one, your private business if it’s so inclined, your clubs, your retreats, your podiatrist’s office or your retirement community, if you’re that insistent. Now you have to bring it into public spaces,~ Yes people have the Constitutionally secured RIGHT to bring their religious belief in public as long as they are not violating others rights. Also you the left have said people do NOT have the RIGHT to have your religios expression at ones own private business.

  16. Sherry says:

    Although I personally do not have children, I have paid heavily into property taxes to support “public” schools, for almost 50 years! I believe that “equal”, “FACTUAL”, high quality, education is the very foundation of a healthy civilization on our planet.

    If the school day is disrupted by ANY “religious” practices, from any religion. . . not only would the students be unduly influenced. . . not only would their studies have an unnecessary distraction . . . but my hard earned investment in the future of our country would be diminished. Freedom OF religion also means “Freedom” FROM religion!!!!

    I will continue to speak out for the fundamental need for the “Separation of Church and State”!

  17. Anonymous says:

    If I’m not mistaken Ghost, all religions took slaves, raped women and stoned non-believers. I’ve seen how these “believers act” in the middle east in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will shoot you in the back the first chance they get, not to mention rape women and stone those who do not follow their rules and even cut off their heads. The rights in the United States are going or could be gone in the years to come.

    And as far as “Separation of Church and State”.., you bet.

  18. mark101 says:

    hey ghost what religion do you walk under. I guess your religion never took slaves, raped women or stoned others who did not believe, not to mention maybe burned some at the stake. Look back into the past and see how all religions, went a little overboard. While I was serving my country in Iraq and Afghanistan I saw too many women beat at the hands of their own kind when they tried to educate their children. And lets not forget the nuts that cut people heads off all in the name of religion.

    Separation of Church and State”., you bet.

  19. anon2 says:

    Right wingers continue to try and destroy our Constitution and freedoms. Now forcing a certain type of religion (fundamentalism christianity) down our throats shows their lack of respecting our principles and rights. Vote OUT all republicans from Florida legislatures and the Congress asap, before we become another 3rd world country like what’s going on in the middle east.

  20. Richard Smith says:

    Personally, I believe that all politicians need to be voted out of office no matter what side of the aisle they are on. They all a worthless. It’s time to put some smart business men & women in office to run our government.

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