Gov. Scott Signs School Prayer Bill
article by Florida Teacher | April 06, 2012
Last week Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill, SB 98, that would allow schools to have an ‘inspirational message’ delivered during school events. However, the language of the bill, and how ‘inspirational message’ is defined, has critics worried that the law will open up the state for new lawsuits.
“This is a historical day in the state of Florida,” Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat and sponsor of the measure said to The Palm Beach Post. “After 50 years, our children will be able to participate in a variety of inspirational speeches, including prayer.”
According to the bill, there will be no restriction on what type of message can be presented. This means that the messages could range from standard inspirational quotes to prayer, and even be open to hateful or racist speech.
“This was a bill that we said would alienate students, make them feel like outsiders in their own classrooms just because they don’t belong to the same faith as some of their classmates, or possibly have them be compelled by peer pressure to participate in religious activity that differed from their own family’s religious heritage,” ACLU spokesman Baylor Johnson said to The Miami Herald.
One worry is that this will open up schools and the government to lawsuits. However, Siplin, who is a lawyer explained that there are provisions placed in the bill to deter frivolous lawsuits. For example, one provision requires individuals to pick up the legal costs of lawsuits.
In spite of the general consensus on the separation of church and state and keeping prayer and religion out of schools, legislators in support of the bill feel that the addition of these messages and prayer to schools will help in disciplinary efforts. And while the bill removes all mentioning of prayer, many see this as a way to get prayer back in schools.
“When we took school prayer ... out of school, disciplinary cases went up, we had a lot more school vandalism, we had a lot more disrespect for schools, including the physical plant as well as school personnel, teachers and principals,” Rep. Charles Van Zant from Keystone Heights, the House sponsor of the bill, said during a committee hearing in February.
School prayer and religion was banned from schools after two landmark decisions by the supreme court in 1962 and 1963. In the case of Engel v. Vitale in 1962 prayer was banned, and in Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963 banned readings of the Bible in public schools.
“I deeply believe in prayer. I certainly encourage everyone to pray in their own way to themselves in a public place. But I do not think that it's appropriate for us to write a law that allows for prayer openly in our schools,” Sen. Gwen Margolis of North Miami said to The Associated Press when the senate passed the bill, 31 to 8, in February.
The main worry with this new law is that it will prove to be divisive amongst children of different faiths, and potentially add unneeded stress to their lives.
“Our public schools are for all children regardless of their religion,” David Barkey, the Anti-Defamation League’s religious freedom counsel said to The Florida Independent, “but this law could require children as young as five to observe prayers to Allah, Buddha, Jesus or other faiths contrary to their religious upbringing at mandatory student assemblies. It is completely contrary to our public schools’ inclusive nature, and the law will only serve to divide students, schools and communities along religious or other lines. In America, the question of one’s religion or faith is extremely personal and private. It is not a question that is put to the discretion of government or other people. To ensure all children’s religious freedom, we urge school districts not to implement this imprudent law.”
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