Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, added a couple new priorities to his agenda for the 2017 session as the Legislature convened on Tuesday: the revived “Stand Your Ground” changes that will be voted on in the Senate on Thursday and a new bill fortifying “religious liberties” in Florida public schools.
The two controversial and polarizing proposals contrast to Negron’s otherwise moderate agenda — which includes improving the state’s public colleges and universities, better funding for environmental protection and Everglades restoration, reforming the juvenile justice system and fixing Florida’s unconstitutional death-penalty law.
Negron had addressed those priorities several times before in speeches to the chamber, such as when he was designated the next Senate President last year and when he officially took over as chamber leader in November.
“I talked about embracing the Constitution, and I realize that means different things to different people, and I respect that,” Negron said.
In mentioning Fleming Island Republican Sen. Rob Bradley’s “Stand Your Ground” bill, Negron notably did not actually use the words “Stand Your Ground.”
Instead he described it as a measure “on burden of proof” — which it is; however, the controversy surrounds the fact the bill shifts burden of proof only in “Stand Your Ground” cases in a manner that is unlike any other similar defense a criminal defendant might put forth.
“I know there are different points of view on this particular proposal,” Negron said, “but I stand firm that the state of Florida and the prosecutor has the burden of proof in every stage of every proceeding to prove your guilt beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt. And we’ll go forward with that proposal this week.”
Opponents, including state prosecutors and gun-control advocates, say the NRA-backed proposal “expands” the controversial 2005 law by making it easier for defendants to claim immunity from prosecution under “Stand Your Ground” and by forcing prosecutors to essentially try cases twice. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allows individuals to use deadly force in self-defense — with no obligation to retreat or flee.
Addressing the “religious liberties” bill — which got a divisive reception when it was heard for the first time Monday — Negron said: “I think it’s very important that students of any faith or no faith” have a right to free speech.
“Religion is not one area of life that can’t be discussed,” Negron said. “I don’t want the government to impose religion; I don’t trust the government to write prayers — and I don’t want the government to do that.”
He added: “I want teachers to teach, but I think everyone involved in our public schools, they have every right” to make their opinions — including religious beliefs — known.
He said he wants students to be able to discuss, for instance: “ ‘What’s important to me is I’m a Muslim and here’s why,’ or ‘I’m of the Jewish faith and let me tell you about what my family believes and what we stand for,’ or ‘I’m Baptist’ or whatever faith, or ‘I’m Catholic, let me tell you about our current pope and the things that he’s doing.’ ”
However, critics say religious freedom in schools is already protected and guaranteed by constitutional rights and U.S. Supreme Court case law. They also worry the legislative proposal offered by Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley could actually lead to discrimination — rather than prevent it — particularly of people who are non-religious or of a non-Christian, minority religion.
Negron said: “To act as if religion is somehow the one area of life that cannot be talked about and that people give up their right to express themselves in the public square, I think it’s important that we make a statement as a Senate that we support no coercion — no one should ever be required to do anything they don’t want to do voluntarily — but let’s not go to the other extreme where we’re taking away people’s rights to free speech, people’s right to practice their beliefs in a way that they feel is important.”
Those comments were followed by applause from the chamber.