Florida Politics

Florida Senate endorses religious expression in public schools

Drum Major Andre Young kneels in prayer in the doorway prior to performing with Miami Central High School band in May 2009.
Drum Major Andre Young kneels in prayer in the doorway prior to performing with Miami Central High School band in May 2009. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Florida’s public schools would have to let students lead religious prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events, under a controversial proposal that the state Senate approved Thursday, mostly along party lines.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, heralded his bill (SB 436) as a way for lawmakers to “take a stand for liberty,” because it makes explicitly clear the rights to religious expression that students and teachers have in public schools, regardless of their faith.

Part of what we’re protecting is those basic rights for religious expression ... and we’re letting people know it doesn’t stop at the property line of the school site.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala

But Democrats worry the measure goes beyond existing protections of religious freedom and violates the constitutional separation between church and state. They also fear it could lead to students and teachers being ostracized or discriminated against if they’re of non-Christian faiths or non-religious.

“It’s religiously coercive, divisive and unconstitutional,” said Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach.

The bill passed on a 23-13 vote, with Miami Shores Democratic Sen. Daphne Campbell voting with Republicans to support the bill. Campbell told the Herald/Times: “I don’t see anything wrong. The bill is not discriminatory. ... I just don’t see how anyone could be against prayer.”

Baxley’s proposal — which has large support from Christian and conservative-leaning groups — is more controversial and more far-reaching than a companion measure that’s moved through the House with, so far, unanimous support. The full House could vote on its bill (HB 303) as early as next week.

Both the House and Senate bills make clear students’ and teachers’ rights to express their religious beliefs “in written and oral assignments,” to wear jewelry that has a religious message, and to participate in student-sponsored religious groups before, during and after the school day.

But Baxley’s bill goes further in also requiring school districts to adopt policies allowing for “limited public forums” so that students of different faiths can say prayers at school events, like assemblies and football games.

MORE: “Lawmakers push for more ‘religious liberties’ in Florida public schools”

Rader had filed an amendment to match the Senate bill with the House’s narrower version, but he withdrew it. The House and Senate have to pass identical bills in order for a proposal to be sent to the governor and signed into law.

“Part of what we’re protecting is those basic rights for religious expression — which are protected free speech — and we’re letting people know it doesn’t stop at the property line of the school site,” Baxley said, “We owe our educators some clarity on this so it can be applied uniformly across the state and in a way that respects all faiths and [people of] no faith.”

It’s religiously coercive, divisive and unconstitutional.

Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach

Religious expression is already protected under the state and U.S. constitutions, and Democrats said that further guidance from the Legislature wasn’t necessary.

“There’s nothing wrong with the law the way it is,” Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said. “If there is a teacher that somehow misinterprets what current law and policy is, then that teacher should be counseled.”

But conservative Republicans argued that public schools have overreacted in trying to keep religion out of the classroom — to the point where students are being discriminated against. (Anecdotal examples cited by lawmakers have all involved Christians.)

“The pendulum has swung way, way too far, to a situation where teachers, parents and students are afraid to express things that are important to them, their core beliefs,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also endorsed the bill. “I want to have freedom of expression for everyone and I think the more faiths we learn about, the more we embrace — I don’t view that as a negative; I view that as a positive outcome that we’ll be able to have all religions treated fairly,” he told reporters.

Both the Senate and House bills were fast-tracked through legislative committees this spring, with only two hearings each. Bills typically get at least three hearings in each chamber.

Earlier Thursday, the House Education Committee unanimously sent its religious liberties bill — sponsored by Democratic Reps. Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes and Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville — to the floor after very little discussion.

Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, raised concerns that the measure might give way to Satanic cults practicing in Florida’s public schools, because all religious faiths would have equal access to practice openly. Daniels said: “Bills like this have passed in six other states and they aren’t having these problems.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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