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

A bill that would allow K-12 students to deliver “inspirational messages,” including prayers, during mandatory and non-mandatory school events was approved by a Florida House judiciary committee today.

Committee members held a somewhat lengthy debate over whether the bill would allow school boards to adopt policies that would allow for school prayer. Currently, the bill includes vague language allowing a school board to adopt a policy that would give students the option of giving an “inspirational message” to his or her peers without the influence, input or monitoring of faculty. This would include elementary school students, as well.

Because the word “prayer” is not included anywhere in the one-page bill, members who support the bill argued that it is not about prayer at all and would therefore not invite litigation.

But a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said that because the measure does not exclude prayers and makes no distinction between types of messages and types of school events, it could open up districts to costly litigation.

State Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, who was presenting the Senate’s version of the bill, said that “freedom of speech is the crux of the bill.” He said that prayer is not explicitly mentioned in the bill, which means it is not a school prayer measure.

One of the original versions of the bill, however, said explicitly that it would “authorize district school boards to adopt resolutions that allow prayers of invocation or benediction at secondary school events.”

As Van Zant explained in the committee meeting, before the Senate version passed, state House and Senate attorneys “put together” new language that they said would make sure the Legislature was not inviting a lawsuit. On the Senate floor, the Senate sponsor, Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, introduced an amendment that removed the entire language of his bill and replaced it with the language the Legislature’s attorneys put together. At the suggestion of the attorneys, Siplin introduced a bill that allowed for “insprational messages” instead of “prayers of invocation or benediction.”

Opponents of the bill claim that the language is simply a maneuver to get around admitting that the goal of the legislation is to encourage school prayer.

Pamela Burch-Fort, of the ACLU of Florida, said the bill was “unnecessary” because students can already pray in school.

State Rep. Richard Steinberg said that the measure is ”nothing more than a school prayer bill that has [a] euphemism,” allowing sponsors to get away with expanding school prayer without having to admit to it.

Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, also said that the bill could hurt minorities, a sentiment that has been echoed as the bill has moved through the Legislature. Democratic lawmakers have said in committee that the bill could potentially invite “messages of hate,” specifically racist or anti-Semitic comments. The bill also does not allow for faculty in schools to monitor and advise students over what they include in their speeches, in case a student does decide to say something inflammatory.

State Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, also pointed out that other religious groups had expressed concern over the legal issues the bill presents. Porth mentioned that both Matthew Staver of the Liberty Counsel and John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council have expressed concern over the bill in the past. But Van Zant today claimed that the Family Policy Council announced an endorsement of the bill today.

The bill eventually passed, with the help of some Democratic representatives.

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