The Senate on Wednesday passed a measure that will allow school districts to let students offer inspirational messages, including prayer, at school events as long as adults stay out of the way.
Passage of the bill (SB 98) on a 31-8 vote sends it to the House, where it is thought to be likely to pass. The bill was sponsored by a Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando, though all those who opposed the bill were Democrats.
Its approval came over the objections of senators who said the measure will lead to prayers at school events that students can't get out of, including possibly in classes, and that some young students will have to listen to prayers or risk being ostracized because they come from a different religious tradition than most of their classmates.
"I implore you to protect minority students … and not promote alienation," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. "We want our public school students to get along."
But backers of the bill said the measure is needed to protect the religious freedom of students, some of whom now feel they aren't allowed to offer prayers that the student body, or a large part of it can listen to – that they're only allowed to pray to themselves or in small groups.
In that way, the bill is about freedom of expression – the right of students to be heard when they're expressing a religious message, said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
"This is about protecting the rights of students to talk," he said, saying that he rejected the notion that "religious expression should somehow be eliminated from the public square."
Negron said efforts to remove religion from public discourse have resulted in discrimination against the religious – preventing them from expressing their beliefs in public while at school events.
"I don't park my religious beliefs, my political beliefs, my economic beliefs, my sports beliefs — you don't park your rights at the school door," Negron said. "The reasons Sen. Siplin has to do this bill is these rights are being trampled."
Many of those who spoke against the bill on the Senate floor were Jewish, including Sobel and Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, who said she remembered that in the Miami Beach of her childhood, there were establishments with signs that said "no dogs, no Jews, no blacks."
"The same feelings of exclusion come welling up" with the bill the Senate debated and passed on Wednesday, she said. "Anyone who doesn't go along with it is considered the other. This is especially true with children. Anything that makes you different can subject you to ridicule and abuse."
Rich and several other opponents noted that the constitution protects the rights of children to pray.
Siplin reminded colleagues that the bill is permissive – school boards don't have to allow anything, if they don't want. And the measure doesn't represent government dictating any type of religious message, because it specifically says that teachers and other school personnel are prohibited from having anything to do with the message. The choice to offer an inspirational message at a school event would have to be up to the student, and no adults would be able to censor what it is the student wants to say.
One supporter of the proposal, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, while speaking in favor of the bill, warned his colleagues that in order to support the measure they had to accept the notion that those messages may not always be a Christian prayer, or even a Jewish one.