Unconstitutional FL School Prayer Bill Gets Closer to Passage
The Supreme Court made its first ruling regarding school prayer in 1962 in Engle v. Vitale, making clear that public schools cannot promote prayer or religious worship. This case, along with subsequent Supreme Court cases and the United States Constitution, is essentially being ignored by lawmakers in Florida. On August 29, 2011, Florida Senate Bill 98 (S.B. 98) was introduced by state Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando). This legislation is a misguided attempt to allow district school boards to adopt a policy that allows students to deliver an inspirational message at school events, including graduation, football games and “noncompulsory events.” This legislation is unconstitutional at best—the Supreme Court struck down “student-initiated” prayer in 2000 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe—and at worst it is an attempt to proselytize and exclude students of different faiths than that of the prayer or message being delivered. The Supreme Court has recognized that students do not lose their right to free speech and religious expression when they enter school property. S.B. 98 is also unnecessary—students already have the ability to pray privately in public schools so long as it is during non-instructional time, is non-disruptive and non-coercive.
S.B. 98 breezed through the Florida Senate Education and Judiciary Committees and passed the state Senate by a 31-8 margin on February 1. It was passed by the Florida House Education Committee on February 13 and now proceeds to the House Judiciary Committee. If passed by the Judiciary Committee, it could be brought to the floor for a vote by the Florida House of Representatives. Should this legislation be passed by the House with no amendments, it will be sent to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. As a religious community, we know the deep power and value of prayer. However, as members of a religious minority, we also know all too well the dangers of state-sponsored prayer and religion. S.B. 98 must be stopped before students are put in the position of having to listen to prayers at school events that are not true of their faith. It is imperative that we speak up against this legislation and tell lawmakers in Florida that not only are they ignoring Supreme Court precedent and the United States and Florida constitutions that protect government from religion and religion from government, but they are also ignoring the rights of students to practice their faith free from government intrusion. Members of the House leadership are in key positions to stop this bill from moving ahead. If you are so inclined, you can express opposition to this legislation by contacting:
- House Speaker Dean Cannon at (850) 488-2742.
- House Judiciary Chairman William D. Snyder at (850) 488-8832.
- House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera at (850) 788-4202.
- House Majority Whip James C. Frishe at (850) 488-9960.
If you have additional questions, please feel free to contact me via email or at 202-387-2800.