Late last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure that allows all schools in Florida to adopt policies allowing students to give “inspirational messages,” which could include prayers or hate speech, during any school event. Critics of the law have warned that the law will land the state in yet another lawsuit.
The bill, which was sponsored by state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, has raised numerous concerns from legal experts who warn that it is unconstitutional and will throw school districts into “costly litigation.” The bill does not restrict what kind of message can be delivered during school events, and school faculty would be prohibited from monitoring the messages, leading many lawmakers to worry that, if adopted, the measure could end up giving students the ability to deliver hateful or racist messages at school events.
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.” Critics claim that allowing prayer in schools is still the motivation behind the bill, even though it is written to endorse “inspirational messages.”
In a joint press release sent out late last week, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Anti-Defamation League denounced Scott’s decision to sign the bill into law.
Americans United Executive Director Rev. Barry W. Lynn said in a statement that “legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp.”
“I hope school board members turn down the invitation,” he said. “It’s wrong to subject students to coercive prayer and proselytizing. Our public schools should respect diversity, not undermine it.”
David Barkey, the Anti-Defamation League’s religious freedom counsel, said in a statement that the law wades into dangerous territory.
“Our public schools are for all children regardless of their religion,” he said, “but this law could require children as young as five to observe prayers to Allah, Buddha, Jesus or other faiths contrary to their religious upbringing at mandatory student assemblies. It is completely contrary to our public schools’ inclusive nature, and the law will only serve to divide students, schools and communities along religious or other lines. In America, the question of one’s religion or faith is extremely personal and private. It is not a question that is put to the discretion of government or other people. To ensure all children’s religious freedom, we urge school districts not to implement this imprudent law.”
Howard Simon, the ACLU of Florida’s executive director, said: “The Legislature has made it clear their plan is to entice local districts to create unnecessary, unconstitutional and religiously divisive policy and get sued — and pass the buck on the legal bills to the school districts.”
“School districts need to know the path ahead is costly and unproductive, and that they don’t have to take it,” he warned. “We have written to every Florida school superintendent urging that they decline the Legislature’s invitation to become a test case.”
Last week, a coalition of religious leaders asked Scott to veto the law in an effort to “fully protect religious liberty.”