After impassioned debate from both sides, the Florida House Education Committee approved a prayer-in-school bill on a party-line vote just after noon today (Feb. 13), making it all but certain that the measure will pass the full House and head for Gov. Rick Scott’s desk for his signature. The bill passed the Senate, 31-8, two weeks ago.
The bill allows local school boards to adopt a resolution “allowing the use of an inspirational message, including prayers of invocation or benediction,” at any school event deemed “non-compulsory,” such as athletic events, fairs, graduation exercises, pep rallies and the like. The bill does not define an “inspirational message,” a “benediction” or a “prayer,” but requires all such prayers to be given by student volunteers. The prayers must be “nonsectarian and nonproselytizing in nature.”
Should it become law, the measure would make Florida an outlier state with regard to school-prayer permissiveness and almost certainly trigger court action.
The bill collides with a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred student-led prayers or invocations even at non-compulsory school events because, as Justice John Paul Stevens wrote at the time, “the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship.” The Supreme court dismissed distinctions between mandatory and non-mandatory school functions on two grounds: even non-compulsory school functions are conducted under the official sanction of school authorities. And students are often under pressure or expectation to attend voluntary but officially sanctioned events such as graduation exercises or football games.
The court also dismissed the notion–advanced by Florida’s sponsors of the prayer bill–that prayers or invocations led by students would be “private speech” that falls under the protection of the First Amendment–ahead of the amendment’s prohibition against state-sponsored religious expression. “These invocations are authorized by a government policy and take place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events,” the court ruled, in settings where anyone in attendance could see the prayers offered with the school’s “seal of approval.”
Unless prodded, local school boards may not necessarily jump on the occasion to pass resolutions enabling prayers because of the prospect of litigation, which may prove costly, distracting and divisive, on an issue that has no bearing on the education of students.
“I have a very strong faith, and believe that it’s an important component to youth development,” Colleen Conklin, the Flagler County School Board member and its legislative liaison, said immediately after the committee vote today. “Unfortunately, I do agree there are more and more students drifting from their faith. But I do not believe this bill is appropriate for addressing this need. An ‘Inspirational message’ can be defined in multiple ways. What I may define as hate speech others may define as inspirational. I think it opens a can of worms and leaves school districts across the state dealing with the legal consequences. ”
While the intent of the bill is purported to be “the solemnization and memorialization of secondary school events and ceremonies,” the measure was put forward by two staunchly pro-prayer members of the Legislature who have not hidden their intentions of bringing prayer back to schools–Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat, and Charles van Zant, the Palatka Republican. Van Zant and Siplin were present, and spoke, as the House Education Committee went through its final deliberations today. Van Zant derisively rejected arguments against the bill by opponents who claimed it would once again narrow the door to diversity.
“Whenever you suppress free speech and student inspiration at any age, that is hate , but when free speech and inspiration is fostered in our children at any ages, that is love,” van Zant said.
Dwight Bullard, the Culter Bay Democrat, recalled that when he was a young boy, another boy called him a nigger. That boy, Bullard said, had also been inspired to mouth the invective. “What this bill does is open up the possibility of messages of hate,” Bullard said. “There’s a 9-year-old from 1986 who’s now sitting before you in the House of Representatives who doesn’t feel that that’s the way to go.”
To Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican, the measure is nothing more than “simply allowing kids to inspire one another in an event that creates community togetherness, for lack of a better word.”
But Cynthia Stafford, a Miami Democrat, raised several issues that neither the bill nor subsequent deliberations resolved: What constitutes “an appropriate inspirational message” has never been defined. Nor have the parameters of the allowance. “You don’t know what one child may say to another child that they may deem themselves deem to be inspirational,” but that others may not necessarily hear the same way. She referred directly to Bullard’s experience. “That will be with him for the rest of his life,” she said. “That child was inspired to say what they said to him.” Stafford said that when the bill’s reach had been limited to secondary schools, she might have supported it. But the reach was extended to schools at all level. She could not take the risk of supporting it, Stafford said.
So it went as lawmaker after lawmaker spoke of his or her vote, with Republicans all supporting the measure, including Bill Proctor, the St. Augustine Republican who represents Flagler County, and Democrats opposing it.