Friday, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed one the most controversial bills to pass in the House and Senate: SB 98, which permits school districts to allow students to read inspirational messages of their choosing at assemblies and sporting events.
Although the word "prayer" was explicitly struck from the bill's language, the legislation is largely seen as a way for the State to sneak in religion into public schools.
Students are currently permitted 2 minutes in the morning for silent prayer or mediation.
“When we took school prayer … out of school, disciplinary cases went up, we had a lot more school vandalism, we had a lot more disrespect for schools, including the physical plant as well as school personnel, teachers and principals,” Rep. Charles Van Zant (R-Keystone Heights), the House sponsor of the bill, said during a committee hearing in February.
Under SB 98, school officials would not be allowed to mediate, approve, or participate in the "inspirational messages." Critics are wary that this volatile open forum could permit hate speech, bullying, or political statements.
State democrats tried to pass amendments that would restrict messages to avoid anything that “could or would endanger the health and safety of children," "distorts well-established historical facts," or expresses "anti-American sentiments that are intended to disparage, either directly or indirectly, the United States of America.” Such amendments were withdrawn on the House floor.
Religious leaders even had a problem with the bill. Florida members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who are all clergymen, sent a letter to Scott, asking him to veto the bill:
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.
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.
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.
Unless its constitutionality is contested in the U.S. Supreme Court, the "inspirational message" bill goes into effect on July 12.
Click here for a summary of which bills passed and failed in Florida's 2012 Legislative Session.