School Prayer Bill Clears First Hurdle
A controversial school prayer bill cleared its first hurdle in the House, paving the way for teacher participation in student-sponsored prayer.
The House Pre-K-12 Policy committee voted 10-3 to forward HB 31, which would prohibit school districts from forcing teachers to enter an agreement that says they cannot participate in any religious activities initiated by students, a situation that occurred in Santa Rosa County.
Santa Rosa school officials said that under a consent decree, they have to leave a room or offer a disclaimer that they are not participating if their students bow their head in prayer or engage in some other religious-based activity.
Mickey Lindsey, the football coach at Pace High School in Santa Rosa County, said if his players decide to pray before a game, he must turn his back. If a player gets injured during a game and the parents say a prayer, he can't pray with them.
Because of the decree, he said, it looks like he is not being supportive of the boys he coaches.
“I completely agree that we shouldn't force religion on anyone, but we do have rights of our own,” Lindsey told the committee.
Lawmakers have sponsored school prayer bills in the past, but failed to pass them. This week, the House committee offered up new language to the bill that changed the focus from the students to the teachers. However, it does still contain language that prohibits teachers from discouraging students from initiating the delivery of an “inspirational message” at a school event.
Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, who is a co-sponsor of the current legislation and has sponsored the bill in the past, said he believes the bill does have a better chance at making it through the legislative process than in past years because of the revamped language.
“It's not telling anyone that they have to [pray],” he said. “It's not telling anyone they can't.”
But some lawmakers and interest groups say there are constitutional issues with the measure. The Anti-Defamation League and American Civil Liberties Union are lined up against the proposal.
An amendment was approved to remove the word “prayer” when describing the inspirational message, but some lawmakers still said they saw problems with the bill.
Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, said the legislation was “blatantly unconstitutional” under the establishment clause, which states that the government cannot establish or prefer one religion. The bill, he said, could be unfair to Jewish or Muslim students who attend school with mostly Christian students who could initiate a prayer or religious message in opposition to those students' faiths.
Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, one of the other “no” votes, added that the legislation could also create a scenario where a student could openly attack students who are gay or of a different race, and teachers would be unable to stop that.
“If you know students you understand this, you don't know what could come out of their mouths unchecked,” Bullard said.
The legislation still has three more committee stops before it could go before the full House. The Senate has not yet taken up its version of the measure, which still includes the original language rather than the teacher-focused language.