Uninspired Message: Florida Bill May Bring Coercive School Prayer – and Lawsuits

A bill that would allow Florida students to deliver “inspirational messages” is just one step from becoming law. Can lawsuits be far behind?

The Florida House of Representatives passed the measure 88-27 on Thursday, and since the Senate has already passed it, SB 98 now awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s signature. According to the Palm Beach Post, Scott is expected to sign it

The bill would allow school boards to grant students the authority to deliver an “inspirational message” during the student portion of any school assembly. No school officials would be permitted to review or edit these messages. 

Of course, we all know what’s going on here. The measure is nothing short of a thinly veiled attempt to promote coercive prayer in schools. Florida law already lets students have up to two minutes at the beginning of the school day for silent prayer or meditation, and student-sponsored prayer groups are allowed to meet in schools.

That sort of thing passes constitutional muster because it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, but these “inspirational messages” to a captive audience of students are something very different – they may well be unconstitutional.

According to the Post, Rep. Rick Kriseman (D-St. Petersburg) noted a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred a school district from permitting student-led prayer before football games. Florida’s attempt at a similar policy, he said, would not stand up in court, either.

Another lawmaker summed it up simply.

“Our Constitution protects us from state-sponsored prayer, and this bill is clearly unconstitutional,” said Rep. Lori Berman (D-Delray Beach).

A number of religious leaders have also seen through this misguided school-prayer plot. Three clergy who work with Americans United (among them Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, president of AU’s Board of Trustees) sent a letter to Florida senators expressing opposition to the bill in November. (The missive was also signed by eight of AU’s state chapters.)

A similar letter went to House members in January.

Even some Religious Right groups have come out against this bill, including the Florida Family Counsel (associated with Focus on the Family) and Liberty Council (a conservative Christian legal group). Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, told the Post that he is “an advocate of student speech, but this bill will run into constitutional problems and I don’t think it’s right to make school districts litigate this issue again — and they will have to.”

Given the legal mess the bill could create, school administrators are rightly viewing this bill with caution. The Palm Beach County School Board has yet to discuss the measure, though it probably will do so shortly, School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri told the Post.

“We’ll have to get legal review first from counsel,” he said.

This measure is a great example of the selfish nature of some lawmakers. Those who voted for the bill can tell their constituents that they fought for “religious freedom,” and they can brag to voters about how “religious” they are. But at the end of the day, it’s the constituents who will pay the price for this showboating with lengthy and expensive legal battles should the new policy result in constitutional violations.

We don’t want lawmakers who are pious at public expense. We want lawmakers who act in the public interest, and SB 98 certainly does no such thing.

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