Many Florida school districts are, so far, listening to warnings from civil rights groups that adopting policies allowing for prayer at any school event will land them in court.
This past legislative session, Florida lawmakers passed a thinly veiled school prayer bill 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.
Legal experts have warned that the law is unconstitutional and could throw school districts into “costly litigation.” The law prohibits school faculty members from monitoring the messages, which has led to worries that, if adopted, the measure could end up giving students the ability to deliver hateful or racist messages at school events — some of which could be mandatory.
Past incarnations 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.”
Immediately after Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Anti-Defamation League and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent letters to school boards urging them to not adopt such policies.
The groups warned school board members that implementing such policies would burden them with legal costs and “will very likely cause dissension throughout your community, dividing schoolchildren and families along religious lines.”
The Orlando Sentinel reported yesterday that school officials in Central Florida are listening to these warnings and say that “they have no interest in implementing” school prayer policies.
Most school board presidents say the law, which takes effect July 1, is extraneous, and that new rules stemming from it would open districts up to costly legal suits.
“I just think that ultimately students are going to get up and lead sectarian prayer,” said Bill Sublette, chair of the Orange County School Board. Sublette, who also is a lawyer, doesn’t believe the law will stand up to constitutional scrutiny and doesn’t want to risk a legal challenge.
Many districts are heeding the same advice from Florida School Boards Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton.
“Bottom line, we are saying do not attempt to pass a policy based on this statute unless you want to have lengthy litigation,” Blanton said.
School leaders in Lake, Seminole, Volusia and Osceola counties say they worry about the pricey legal battles a new policy could spark, but many believe existing religious student-speech laws are sufficient.
Groups opposed to the law have claimed that students already have the ability to pray in schools.
The bill was was sponsored by state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who has stood by his belief that the bill is constitutional.