Sponsor defends school prayer bill against charges that it’s ‘patently unconstitutional’
A school prayer bill introduced by state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, has caught the attention of national groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The groups are calling foul and warn that the bill is “patently unconstitutional.” Siplin, however, maintains that his bill is constitutional in a new interview with The Florida Independent.
Senate Bill 98 would “authorize district school boards to adopt resolutions that allow prayers of invocation or benediction at secondary school events.”
Early last month, an education committee added an amendment that would remove a line that read: “All prayers of invocation or benediction will be nonsectarian and nonproselytizing in nature.”
The Anti-Defamation League, a group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, says the amended bill is more problematic than the original version. The group said in a press release that the bill “divisive and unnecessary legislation … [that] will result in state sponsored religious endorsement or coercion.”
“[The bill] blatantly authorizes sectarian and proselytizing prayers – such as prayers to Allah, Adanoi, Buddha, or Jesus at all kinds of public secondary school events,” said David Barkey, the League’s religious freedom counsel, in a statement. “We are even more concerned that the bill will be used to impose majority religious beliefs on minority faiths in Florida’s public schools.”
The group also warns that, due to the bill’s “patent unconstitutionality, it will result in costly litigation expenses to the state, local school districts and the Florida taxpayer.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation echoed those sentiments and called the bill “patently unconstitutional.” The group said in letter addressed to Siplin, and others, that the bill goes against years of legal precedent.
Much like Anti-Defamation League, the group warned of costly litigation if the measure passes. In its letter, the group wrote: “This recklessness reaches astounding heights when the immediate future is considered.”
“Should the bill pass, school districts will use its provisions to authorize prayer,” the letter said. “Lawsuits will inevitably follow and the schools will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.”
Siplin, however, says the uproar merely involves “certain entities that don’t want our kids to pray.”
“I thought we had a strong bill,” he says, “and I still do.”
When asked if he is rethinking the direction of the bill, Siplin says he remains unfazed. ”I don’t think so,” he says. “It’s up to the students.”
Siplin says he is not worried that the bill is unconstitutional, either. ”We think we have very good legal grounds,” he says. “It is constitutional.”