A bill that allows school boards to permit student-initiated prayer and other “inspirational messages” at public school assemblies has been signed into law by Florida Governor Rick Scott.
Public schools in the U.S. are banned from conducting religious observances such as prayer. The legal basis for this prohibition is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides the foundation for the separation of church and state. It states:”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
So how can Governor Scott sign this piece of legislation into law?
That’s simple: the bill, SB 98, refers only to inspirational messages and does not use the word “prayer” in the text. However, opponents argue that the term “inspirational message” is simply a euphemism for prayer, and supporters acknowledge that such messages could include prayer.
The bill passed both chambers of the Florida Legislature largely along party lines with Republicans favoring it and most of the opposition from Democrats, although Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, sponsored the Senate version.
The law, effective July 1, allows school districts to create policies that authorize students to deliver “inspirational messages” at public events. It does not, however, require school boards to adopt inspiration message policies, but students would have discretion over the content of their messages if permitted by the board. So the burden will be on individual school districts to decide whether to allow students to pray or deliver “inspirational messages” during public events.
Critics who had lobbied the governor to veto SB 98 immediately refocused their attention on school boards, warning that implementing the policy would guarantee a court battle.
From The Tampa Bay Times:
“Legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp,” said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “I hope school board members turn down the invitation. It’s wrong to subject students to coercive prayer and proselytizing.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, Anti-Defamation League and Americans United lobbied for a veto along with individual faith leaders who challenged the bill’s constitutionality and said it could lead to bullying or intolerance.
“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.
Looks like Governor Scott had better start praying for a good legal team.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore