Civil rights groups are speaking out against a recent vote in the Florida Senate in favor of a bill that would allow students in public schools to pray during any school event.

The final version of state Sen. Gary Siplin’s bill was expanded to include elementary school students. Originally, the measure only allowed high school students to give religious or non-religious “inspirational messages” during school events. Siplin’s amendment also removed language that said the message could only be given at events that were non-compulsory.

Civil rights groups have been concerned about this bill since it was introduced.

Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said yesterday that the Senate’s vote “puts schools in the business of allowing student leaders to impose religious expression on others.”

“The trouble comes when the government, school or administration sanction, endorse or require students to participate in prayer or other religious exercises,” Simon said in statement. “And unfortunately, that’s exactly what Senate Bill 98 does.”

“Attempting to pass off the decision-making about praying at school functions does not solve the problem,” Simon continued. “It simply invites drawn out, expensive legal fights at the school district level and makes religious expression subject to student popularity votes like a picking a Homecoming Queen. Subjecting deeply personal acts of religious expression to popular vote is destructive to the premise that religion is a voluntary, individual and personal choice – and permits the majority to impose its religious views on minorities.”

The Anti-Defamation League is also speaking out against the bill.

League Religious Freedom Counsel David Barkey said in a statement yesterday that “in a last minute change, the Senate has enacted a school prayer bill which is even worse for children’s religious freedom than the version vetted through the committee process.”

“Yesterday, the bill sponsor submitted a late filed amendment, which essentially rewrote the bill,” Barkey said in his statement. “But the Senate unfairly allowed it to go forward without the language being properly examined and analyzed by committee and their staff. To make the bill seem more innocuous, the amendment deleted all references to prayers of invocation or benediction.”

“However,” he continued, “that change has no impact on the bill’s effects. It authorizes sectarian or proselytizing prayers. And it now applies to public elementary schools and mandatory school assemblies. So, children as young as five can be required to observe a prayer or other religious message that is contrary to their religious upbringing or faith. That’s completely contrary to the inclusive and diverse nature of our public schools. If CS-SB 98 becomes law, the first school district that adopts a policy under the measure will undoubtedly be hit with a lawsuit costly to local taxpayers.”

Opponents of the bill had warned senators throughout the committee process that the bill would inevitably lead to costly litigation. The bill passed quickly through committees anyway.

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