A bill that would allow “inspirational messages,” including prayers, to be given during any school event, was passed on the House floor today with an 88-27 vote. The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk.
The bill has raised countless concerns from critics, including legal experts, who warn that it is unconstitutional and would throw school districts into “costly litigation.”
In an effort to make this point, state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, and state Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, introduced amendments that would stipulate whether the state or school boards would shoulder the costs of the litigation the law would likely spur. Both amendments failed.
As it is written, the bill does not restrict what kind of messages can be delivered during school events. School faculty in K-12 schools would be prohibited from monitoring the messages, leading many lawmakers to raise concerns that the measure, if adopted, could end up giving students the ability to deliver hateful or racist messages at school events.
An original version of the bill stated explicitly that it would “authorize district school boards to adopt resolutions that allow prayers of invocation or benediction at secondary school events.” Critics claim that allowing prayer in schools is still the motivation behind the bill.
State Rep. Jeff Clemens, D- Lake Worth, said that the term “inspirational messages” was a “euphemism.. so thinly veiled you would think it was written by a first grader.” He said the language of the bill was ”simply an attempt to circumvent the constitution.”
During final debate over the bill, House members argued over whether its passage was even necessary. Legal experts have explained that children in public schools can already pray on their own, but not during mandatory events where children with minority views are in attendance. A handful of Democratic representatives said that the bill would greatly harm students with minority views.
Proponents of the bill, however, claimed that moral decay and unruliness amongst school children is a product of the removal of prayer in public schools.
The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, said that before “inspirational messages” were removed from schools in 1963, the biggest problems among school students were “speaking out of turn, chewing gum and running in the halls.” He claimed that now, because “inspirational messages,” are no longer allowed in schools, students deal with “drug addiction [and] alcoholism.”
Democratic State Reps. John Patrick Julien and Hazelle Rogers echoed these sentiments. Rogers told members that her constituents claimed they were having trouble with their children because prayer was absent in their schools.
A handful of Democrats, including Rogers and Julien, aided Republicans in passing the bill today.
Steve Bousquet of The Tampa Bay Times said via Twitter today that Gov. Rick has said “that individuals ought to be able to have the right to pray in schools,” a signal that he will likely sign the bill into law.