A bill that would allow K-12 students to pray during all school events is currently being opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Liberty Counsel. Both groups warn that such legislation would cost the state money in litigation.
The Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group, and the ACLU have historically been on different sides of issues — including gay parent adoption, gay marriage and a case involving student-initiated prayers in Duval County schools. However, both groups are now denouncing a bill that has passed in the state Senate and is moving through the Florida House.
Yesterday, the bill passed a House education committee where opponents warned that Senate Bill 98, which is sponsored by state Sen. Gary Siplin, D- Orlando, could lead to “messages of hate.”
In a letter to legislators, the ACLU of Florida warned that:
If approved, SB 98 would have three certain – and deeply troubling –outcomes. First, it would inject officially organized prayers into Florida’s public schools, directly violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Second, it would alienate students and families who are religious minorities and cause widespread religious divisiveness throughout public school districts. And third, it would expose those school districts to expensive litigation – diverting precious education dollars from the classroom to the courtroom.
While the mostly religious members of the House and Senate have supported the bill because they say they believe prayer is important and should be protected, a religious group is now opposing the bill.
The Palm Beach Post reported yesterday:
But the Liberty Counsel, an influential Orlando-based nonprofit that advances religious freedom issues, told the Post that it would urge House members to defeat [state Rep. Charles] Van Zant’s proposal.
“I’m an advocate of student speech,” said Mat Staver, founder of the counsel. “But this bill will run into constitutional problems and I don’t think it’s right to make school districts litigate this issue again — and they will have to.”
Staver said he was involved for eight years in a lawsuit stemming from the Duval County School Board’s approval of allowing student-led prayer at high school graduation ceremonies. In a court battle that stretched to the U.S. Supreme Court, prayers were eventually upheld — generally as long as they’re voluntary.
“We don’t agree on much so when the ACLU and Liberty Counsel agree that Senate Bill 98 is unneeded to protect the religious liberty of students, that it is bad law, and that it will only expose school districts to long, expensive and unnecessary litigation, you would think that the Florida Legislature would sit up and take note,” Howard Simon, the executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement today.