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

In an op-ed defending Florida’s new school prayer bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott a week ago, state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, blamed the absence of prayer in schools for numerous social ills, after insisting his bill was not actually about school prayer.

The Florida Legislature passed a law earlier this year that allows K-12 schools to adopt policies allowing students to give “inspirational messages,” which could include prayers or hate speech, during both mandatory and non-mandatory school events. Civil rights groups, religious leaders and others have warned that such policies would violate the Constitution and will force school boards into “costly litigation.”

The bill, as written, allows for “inspirational messages,” which is vague and does not restrict what kind of message can be delivered during school events. An original version of the bill, however, stated explicitly that it would “authorize district school boards to adopt resolutions that allow prayers of invocation or benediction at secondary school events.”

Critics of the bill continued to claim that allowing prayer in schools is still the motivation behind the bill, even though it is written to endorse “inspirational messages.”

In his op-ed, Van Zant — who was the Florida House sponsor for the bill — writes that even though the bill did “start out” as a school prayer bill, the Legislature did not eventually pass a bill that would “have allowed student prayers in schools” during this past legislative session.

Van Zant writes:

We [changed] that because we thought that wouldn’t go again this year. We got the attorneys in the  senate and house together and asked for language that would pass U.S. and Florida Constitutional muster. They came up with the words “inspirational message.”

I ran the bill as a First Amendment issue. in our constitutions, we’re guaranteed freedom of speech. We teach children to speak, and this gives them the opportunity to speak out in school. It doesn’t mix church and state. It’s really why we have free speech in this country, so people can bring forth these issues freely.

And the bill has no concern about what they talk about. They can talk about whatever they want. after all the billions and billions of dollars training teachers, and building school and buying buses and the billions we’ve put into classroom education, they should be able to say whatever they want to say.

Even though Van Zant claims that the law is not a school prayer measure, he then takes time in his op-ed to claim that the absence of school prayer is at fault for many social ills in the past 50 years.

He writes:

All the opposition I got from this bill is from people afraid that someone might use the words Jesus Christ or might actually pray. Many called what we’re doing a euphemism for school prayer. i would make the point that school prayer was abolished by ignorant judges 50 years ago. And that 50 years is a history lesson in what happens to a society that removes prayer.

You can look at the many social ills in our country that have developed in those 50 years. Before we took out school prayer, the biggest problems in school were talking out of turn or chewing gum. Today, the problems are drug abuse, teen pregnancy, rape and assault. School problems speak for themselves. By allowing for inspirational messages, those problems will be addressed.

Van Zant made this same argument during the bill’s final passage on the House floor early last month.

A coalition of religious leaders has asked Scott to veto the law in an effort to “fully protect religious liberty.”

“As ordained clergy members,” the group writes, “we know that religious faith is tremendously important in the lives of so many Floridians, and we have seen the strength, solace, and sense of community that can be gained by an active religious commitment. We believe that the ability to worship as one sees fit is a fundamental right that must be protected; however, this bill is a solution in search of a problem – private, voluntary prayer is already allowed in public schools.”

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