Liberty Counsel founder flip-flops on school prayer bill

Pic by sebrenner, via Flickr

Mat Staver, the founder of a Christian legal group known as the Liberty Counsel, has switched his position on a bill currently making its way to the governor’s desk. The bill, which is sponsored by state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, would allow state school boards to adopt policies allowing K-12 students to give “inspirational messages,” including prayers, at any school event.

Currently, the bill includes vague language that would allow students the option of giving an “inspirational message” to his or her peers without the influence, input or monitoring of faculty. The measure would apply to both mandatory and non-mandatory events.

Staver told the The Palm Beach Post less than two weeks ago that he is “an advocate of student speech, 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.”

But during the bill’s passage of a House committee yesterday, Staver changed his stance.

The Christian Post reports:

“I opposed the original Senate bill, because it allowed only non-sectarian and non-proselytizing messages, which means it required the state to censor student speech,” said Mathew Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, according to Palm Beach Post. “I believe students have the right to free speech. I support the amended version that removed the censorship language and which allows students to deliver a message of their choice.”

This is the second incarnation of the school prayer bill. Before Siplin amended the bill on the Senate floor last month, it “authorized district school boards to adopt resolutions that allow prayers of invocation or benediction at secondary school events.”

Since it passed in the Senate, the House has been trying to pass the amended version, which proponents of the bill now claim is not a school prayer bill.

Because the word “prayer” is not included anywhere in the one-page bill, those who support the bill have argued that it is not about prayer at all. State Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, who is presenting Siplin’s bill in the House, has said the bill is instead a “freedom of speech” bill.

State Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, has dismissed these claims, arguing that “inspirational messages” is simply a “euphemism” for prayer.

Opponents of the bill claim that its vague language is simply a political maneuver to get around admitting the true goal of the legislation – to encourage school prayer. Those opposed have also warned that, if passed, the law could potentially invite “messages of hate,” including racist or anti-Semitic comments. The bill does not allow for school faculty members to monitor or advise students regarding what they include in their speeches.

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