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Compromise May Help Move School Prayer Bill Forward

A change to a statewide school prayer proposal may ease the way for its passage after years of floundering, though civil liberties groups continue to oppose it.

Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheanna, and Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, are the sponsors of bills (HB 31, SB 1580) that would permit students to give “inspirational messages, including a prayer or an invocation” during certain school events. .

New language expected to be considered Wednesday by the House Pre-K-12 Policy Committee seeks to shift the debate to what teachers would be required to do, rather than students. It would prohibit school boards or other administrative personnel from forcing teachers to enter an agreement that “infringes or waives the rights or freedoms” given to individuals under the U.S. Constitution.

In Santa Rosa County, the school district entered into a consent decree that said teachers shall not “offer nor participate in a prayer during or in conjunction with a school event” after a school controversy there.

Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, who chairs the committee, said the overhaul was meant to protect teachers' rights and to stop other schools from doing what the Santa Rosa Schools did, while still permitting students to pray if they want to. Under the newly proposed language, “district school boards, administrative personnel and instructional personnel are prohibited from discouraging or inhibiting the delivery of an inspirational message...”

“It doesn't promote it. It doesn't disparage it. But it mainly focuses on the teachers,” Legg said. “They're not required to leave, they're not required to participate, they're not required to stand up and give disclaimers if someone participates.”

The original proposal would have allowed a prayer to be given at a school-sponsored event if the majority of student participants requested one and if attendance at the event wasn’t required. The legislation had been filed repeatedly over the past several years, but failed to gain traction. Last year, it didn't even get a hearing.

But more lawmakers may be warming to the idea. Legg's committee is set to debate and vote on the measure Wednesday, and Legg expects it to pass.

“I think there's a good likelihood it will move pretty far in the process, Legg said.

The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't believe the new version is any better than the old, said Courtenay Strickland, director of public policy for the organization. Much of the proposal is already part of current law. If students want to say a prayer on their own time, they should, she said.

However, Strickland said, students who want to deliver a prayer during a school event would take time out from the activity and also be pushing one particular set of religious values on the group at large, something that is unfair to students with different beliefs or customs.

“The Legislature can't legalize what the U.S. Constitution prohibits,” she said.

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