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School Prayer Bill Returns

A bill authorizing prayer in public schools has been filed for consideration in next year's legislative session, despite its consistent defeat in past years.

Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, this week filed HB 31, released from bill drafting on Wednesday, that would allow school boards to permit prayer at a non-mandatory school event, such as an assembly, sporting event or other school-related activity. The bill has been proposed regularly over the past several years, but generally failed to gain any traction. Last year, neither the House or Senate versions even came to a committee vote.

“I don't think it's fundamentally right when 700 kids want to pray in school and three are against it, the government sides with those three and prohibits children from having the opportunity to pray to God in our schools,” Drake said.

Drake, who campaigned on the issue, said it will be one of his top priorities for the upcoming legislative session. He said he has not yet spoken with Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who sponsored the Senate version last year, but said he would ask her to do so again this year.

The measure would allow district courts to “permit the delivery of an inspirational message, including a prayer or an invocation, at a non-compulsory high school activity, including a student assembly, a sports event, or other school related activity if a majority of the participating students request the delivery of an inspirational message and select a student representative to deliver the message.”

The bill has been typically opposed by the Anti-Defamation League and other civil rights organizations. However, the issue continues to be a hot topic around the country.

Courtenay Strickland, director of public policy and advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union, said if the bill ever passed, the ACLU would likely challenge it in court. She also said the organization was concerned that schools would be “hung out to dry” if the school authorized a prayer under the law and was then sued by the family of a student.

“People's ability to practice their religious freedom and their religious beliefs - or lack thereof - is a core American value,” Strickland said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 34 states have laws on the books regarding a moment of silence or school prayer. These include neighboring states Georgia and Alabama, which both say teachers must conduct a moment of reflection for no longer than one minute each school day.

Illinois may have had the most stringent law, which said that teachers shall observe a period of silence for silent prayer or reflection on the anticipated activities of the day. However, a federal court ruled the bill unconstitutional earlier this year.

In legislative analysis of last year's Florida Senate version, analysts wrote that the bill could be subject to a constitutional challenge.

The issue has been the subject of litigation for years in Florida and elsewhere. Duval County’s schools were embroiled in a fight over the issue in the early 2000s and most recently the ACLU and two Pace High School students sued the Santa Rosa County School District in the Panhandle over the alleged promotion of prayer at school events. A federal judge in May found in favor of the students and a consent decree prevented promotion of prayer. Several students later held a prayer protest at their graduation.

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