State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa (Pic by Minority Office, via flsenate.gov)

A bill that would allow for prayer during school events passed through a state Senate Judiciary committee today. Groups have been warning that the bill is unconstitutional and could force the state to face another lawsuit, if passed.

Senate Bill 98 would “authorize district school boards to adopt resolutions that allow prayers of invocation or benediction at secondary school events.”

Although the sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, has maintained that the bill stands on firm legal ground, groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League have publicly disagreed.

David Barkey of the Anti-Defamation League testified today, warning senators that the bill was “contrary to the inclusive nature” of schools and was ”divisive and unconstitutional.”

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, was the only legislator to voice opposition to the measure; she was also the only person to vote no.

Siplin said his bill would not force anyone to do anything. Rather, he argued, it allows students to pray at events if they want to.

An amendment that was added to the bill today, specified that “the use of an inspirational message,” which would include prayer, “is at the discretion of the student government [and] all inspirational messages will be given by student volunteers, and the content of any inspirational message will be at the discretion of the student volunteer.”

However, Barkey tells The Florida Independent that the bill is still unconstitutional because it creates a situation in which the school is “in control of the message.” He says the bill could lead to “state-sponsored speech.”

The bill could also wind up costing the state money in litigation.

“The state law still has to pass constitutional muster,” Barkey says. “So, you know, some school district will say, ‘Look, this is on the books. Let’s do this.’ They do it, then they get sued and it is going to cost taxpayer’s money. Do we really need to be doing that?”

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