School prayer bill on its way to the Senate floor

By | 01.24.12 | 11:44 am

State Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando (Pic by Minority Office, via flsenate.gov)

A bill that would allow students to pray during school events passed through its final state Senate committee yesterday.

The measure has been denounced by groups advocating for the separation of church and state, ever since it was first amended to include prayers of invocation or benediction that are sectarian or proselytizing in nature. The Anti-Defamation League has called the bill “divisive and constitutionally defective.” The group has also warned legislators that such a law would inevitably lead to costly lawsuits for the state.

During yesterday’s state Senate rules committee meeting — a final committee stop for the bill — Pamela Burch-Fort spoke on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. She warned that such a law was unnecessary.

“Students can already pray in schools if they want to,” she said, explaining that students just cannot issue prayers at school-mandated events because it would force other students into uncomfortable situations.

Burch-Fort also echoed the League’s warning that the bill would lead to costly litigation for the state.

“This bill simply invites [school boards] to be sued if they get it wrong,” she said.

The sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, has maintained that the bill stands on firm legal ground. But groups like the ACLU, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League have publicly disagreed. The League has warned that if the measure is passed, the state will inevitably be sued.

With the exception of state Sens. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, and Chris Smith, D-Oakland Park, all members voted in favor of the bill, claiming that prayer was important to them and students should have the freedom to pray at school events if they want to.

State Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami said that she “believes in prayer [and] can’t understand why there is such a problem with inspirational prayer.”

Margolis said that giving one religion more weight than another at a school event is the sort of thing that perpetuates bullying. She said that private schools are a more appropriate place for school prayer.

“At a public schools you cannot and should not be able to that,” she said.

Throughout the debate over the bill, the point has been made that legislators have been allowed to open meetings with a prayer. No one has had any problem with that, some have argued.

But Smith was the first legislator to point out that this was not actually the case. He told legislators that claims that he has been frequently late to meetings has more to do with his feelings about prayer at meetings.

“I am late because I am uncomfortable with the opening prayer,” he said, “and I am grown.”

Smith explained that he attends a Baptist church regularly, but is uncomfortable with being exposed to other members’ religions in his place of work. He asked members to consider the place this would put children of other faiths. The bill, however, eventually passed.

The bill is still moving through the state House and now only requires a final vote in the Senate.

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