Religious leaders sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott today, urging him to veto a bill that would allow school boards to adopt policies allowing “inspirational messages,” including prayers, to be given during any school event. The bill is currently awaiting Scott’s signature.
The controversial bill has raised countless concerns from critics, including legal experts, who warn that it is unconstitutional and would throw school districts into “costly litigation.” Opponents of the law have also warned that if a school district were to adopt this policy, it could end up giving students the ability to deliver hateful or racist messages at school events.
The letter was sent by members (including various religious leaders) of the Florida chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In the letter, members told Scott that:
This bill would permit school districts to allow prayers in the form of “inspirational messages” at any school assembly held by an elementary, middle or high school. Each of us are members of differing faiths—one a Baptist minister, one a Presbyterian – USA minister, and one a Rabbi—but all of us agree that this bill would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is disrespectful of the religious diversity that makes our state and our nation great. In order to prevent costly litigation to local school districts, and protect the rights of all public-school students, we urge you to veto this misguided legislation.
As ordained clergy members, 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. Students certainly have the right to pray in many circumstances so it is unnecessary to include prayers in school assemblies. Forcing prayer upon public-school students not only violates the rights of those students, it also demeans the spiritual significance of religious belief.
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.” Despite a change in language, critics claim that allowing prayer in schools remains the motivation behind the bill. Once the Senate sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, struck out that language, the legislation strictly referred to “inspirational messages,” which critics have warned is dangerously vague.
“In order to fully protect religious liberty, we strongly urge you to veto [the bill],” reads the letter. “This most basic liberty is built on a foundation of the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the freedom from government interference with religion. Without one part of the foundation, religious freedom will falter. And thus, religious practice and teaching must remain the province of our homes, families, and houses of worship rather than imposed by majority will upon our public-school students.”