Fabiola Santiago

Let the religious wars in Florida schools begin

In this 2009 file photo, drum major Andre Young kneels in prayer in the doorway prior to performing with Miami Central High School band.
In this 2009 file photo, drum major Andre Young kneels in prayer in the doorway prior to performing with Miami Central High School band. Miami Herald

Devout students, rejoice.

The Florida Legislature seems to have forgotten that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled long ago that public school officials cannot impose prayer or religion on students. But that’s not keeping the legislative body from pursuing a measure to bring religion full throttle to public school life.

If they succeed, Muslim students, for example, would be able to bring to school their prayer rugs, unfurl them, and bow in prayer to Allah. Why not? Any religious practice in public schools would have to be inclusive. No religion could be exempted from being expressed on school grounds. Expand religious rights of one and school officials have to allow space for all. And atheists and agnostics can’t be punished for not engaging in religious activities. They too would have to be given space to express those points of views in equal measure to religious fervor.

So let the 2017 religious wars in Florida schools begin.

There’s no disruption to learning that’s big enough for the state’s ideologue lawmakers, whose aim is not to be inclusive but to expose other people’s children to their brand of evangelization — as if students didn’t have enough learning issues on their plate and enough differences that divide them.

This terrible idea, however, has widespread support.

A bill passed by the House 114-3 this week mandates that religion return to campus life in an official capacity. A Senate bill approved two weeks ago, also with considerable support, requires schools to give students “a limited public forum” to pray and express their beliefs in school at assemblies and other school-sponsored events.

Students also could wear religious clothing, jewelry, and other accessories — as if some weren’t already doing so. I haven’t heard of anyone being asked to take off the necklace with the virgencita medal or the Star of David. And I’ve visited classrooms where young Muslim women wear hijabs. It’s an organic part of the multicultural lifestyle, but maybe other parts of Florida need the force of law.

Lawmakers also want prayer groups and religious events to be allowed in school in the same way secular clubs operate. So the new Muslim Student Club and the Christian Evangelical Club would share space with Key Club and Thespians. I can think of endless pairings: How about santería followers hanging with the French Club?

I’m assuming activities directors will be asked to supervise religion as they do other clubs, so budget them a whopping raise. They’ll need the bigger paycheck to keep them from walking out the door as so many underpaid teachers have done, leaving Florida with a serious teacher shortage.

Most incredibly misguided of all is the language that says religious and secular views must be given equal footing in curriculums.

This reminds me of when teachers in Cuba were forced to incorporate communist dogma into their teaching of grammar, history, geography, you name it. Forgive me for always bringing up Cuba, but not only do I know this because my mother was a teacher who refused and had to resign, but I was a student there until the beginning of sixth grade. I remember the difficulty of trying to reconcile political indoctrination at school with what I saw and heard at home and the streets about what was happening in Cuba. I remember one particular assignment to write essays about contemporary Cuban leaders. While others penned slobbering narratives, I kept mine biographical — and facts became my friends for life.

I digress, but religious indoctrination is no different — and it has no place in secular public schools. Religion, as a subject, is taught at the college level under the umbrella of humanities without proselytizing. Science is on another level. They’re not equal.

Rights to religious expression are already protected by the U.S. and Florida constitutions. So why devote all this legislative energy to a non-issue now? People who want religious instruction along with the ABCs for their children can send them to a religious school. They’re plentiful throughout this state.

But conservatives in Florida feel empowered by Donald Trump’s rise and the role evangelicals played in the presidential election. The House bill is the work of rookie Rep. Kim Daniels, a charismatic evangelical from Jacksonville. In her first move as a newly elected member of the Florida House, she filed House Bill 303, the “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act,” to mandate that school districts allow religious expression. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chimed in with “stand for liberty,” SB 436.

Both are catering to public confusion. Students can privately pray as long as they’re not coercing others. So the drum major who kneels in prayer before a performance with the school band is perfectly able to do so. He just can’t make the band join him. Before or after school, a student can ask others to meet and pray or discuss religion, the Miami-Dade Public Schools handbook says on page 64. But “school officials cannot encourage or discourage participation in such an event.”

If religious freedom is already guaranteed in public schools, what’s the point?

The Florida Legislature wants to make religious devotion public school policy — and that’s a constitutional no-no.