Bill would allow students to lead prayers at public schools

Should student-led prayers be allowed in public schools?

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TALLAHASSEE — The Senate is set to vote as early as Wednesday on a measure that deeply divides the chamber, allowing school districts to let students lead prayers at public school graduations, football games and other assemblies, as long as adults aren't involved.

The version of the bill (SB 98) set for a floor vote doesn't set out any limits on the inspirational message – messages that are sectarian, and those that are proselytizing in nature would be OK, drawing the opposition of some Jewish members of the Senate.

And, in deference to constitutional prohibitions on establishing a religion, just about anything would have to be fair game.

"Any inspirational message they want to do," Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, the sponsor of the bill, said during discussion of the measure on the floor Tuesday.

Presumably, if a district were to approve a policy, and a student wanted to take the P.A. system at a football game and offer a prayer to the Goddess of the Earth or to Allah or a Wiccan deity, they would have to be allowed to do so under the bill.

"Suppose a first grader wants to do an inspirational message to Buddha, to Allah? .Who decides who says what?" asked Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

As long as it is "inspirational," and being voluntarily delivered by the student, it would have to be allowed, Siplin said. The bill doesn't define "inspirational," nor does it let school districts do that. In fact, it clearly prevents school districts from choosing what students are allowed to say or not say, spelling out that school district personnel "may not monitor or otherwise review the content of a student volunteer's inspirational message."

"So the inspirational message my little children would be hearing would not be up to the family .? asked Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.

That is correct, Siplin replied. It would be up to the students at her children's school.

And if she doesn't want her children to hear any "inspirational messages" at school functions, what should she do? Sachs asked.

"Since school boards are elected you can vote against them next time," Siplin responded.

The measure, which changed between the time it was heard in early committees and its arrival on the Senate floor, has a House companion (HB 317), but it has yet to get a committee hearing there. Some of the changes also alarmed opponents. Originally the bill was aimed only at secondary schools, but it was changed before reaching the floor to include elementary school students.

Another change opened up the prayers to any school event – originally it would have made it clear that prayers could only be offered at events students aren't required to attend. Now the bill would allow prayer at any school event.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said she couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't want students to hear inspirational messages at the start of an assembly.

"Do you suppose opponents want, instead of to inspire little first graders, maybe they want to demoralize them?" asked Storms.

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