State Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka (Pic by Meredith Geddings, via myfloridahouse.gov)

A Florida Senate bill that would allow students in public schools to pray during all school events passed during a House education committee today. In the middle of debate over the repercussions of the measure, legislators argued over whether the bill would expose students to “messages of hate,” specifically racist comments, during school events.

Many lawmakers raised concerns about speech that could particularly inflame racial tensions, but state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R- Palatka, dismissed the concerns and told legislators to not dwell on race.

Sen. Gary Siplin’s bill has already passed in the Senate and the Orlando Democrat is now working to get his bill passed through the House, with the help of Van Zant. While the House version did not move through the committees it was referred to, Siplin is now hoping to have his own version passed through other House committees.

Prior to its passage in the Senate, Siplin amended  his bill to expand coverage to elementary school students. Originally, the school prayer bill 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.

The Anti-Defamation’s David Barkey reiterated his warnings that the bill is unconstitutional and would fling the state into costly lawsuits. But Siplin and other proponents maintain the measure is constitutional and would simply allow students to exercise their free speech.

However, Democratic state Reps. Marty Kiar, Luis Garcia, Dwight Bullard and Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed proposed that the measure, if adopted, would give students the ability to deliver hateful messages at school events.

Kiar said that he worried about students who might have a “warped” understanding of what an “inspirational message” is. He argued that students could conceivably deny the Holocaust, give “anti-civil rights” speeches and endorse drug use at a school event.

Because the term “inspirational messages” is a “vague definition,” Bullard argued, students could be allowed to say something racist or misogynistic. State Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, also raised concerns over the lack of protection the African-American community and other racial minorities would receive if the law was passed.

However, Van Zant dismissed their concerns and told them to “get away” from saying “African-American… African-American… African-American.”

“We are all Americans,” he said.

In debate, Bullard later told members of the committee that while he was in school another student had uttered a racial slur aimed at him. ”What inspired that message?” Bullard asked.

“What this bill does is open the possibility of messages of hate,” Bullard argued. “We are not living in a post-racial society.”

The bill eventually passed.

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