Florida State Senator Gary Siplin, a Democrat representing Orlando, is on a mission to bring prayer back to public schools. The lawmaker has proposed a bill that would make it legal for students to lead prayer. Yes, in public schools.
The proposal would enable school districts to decide if they want to allow the religions practice at school events. Currently, students are permitted to pray on an individual basis, though the group-led prayer being proposed is obviously quite different. Siplin, likely realizing the controversial nature of the bill, has explained that no student would be mandated to participate.
“It is completely voluntary," he said. "But we do not want any influence from the principal, the counselor, the dean, the coach or parents."
The proposal would change the current dynamic, which does not allow student-led prayer at school-sponsored events, by “allowing the use of an inspirational message, including prayers of invocation or benediction, at secondary school commencement exercises or any other noncompulsory student assembly.”
To the surprise of some atheists and groups that espouse an intense adherence to the separation of church and state, the developments are troubling. Already, the bill has attracted bi-partisan support in committee. Within its text there are restrictions laid out to determine what, exactly, the prayer should look like -- restrictions that aren't enough to curb criticism, though.
- Directed by the student government of the school.
- Led by students, with no direction by school personnel.
- “Non-sectarian and non-proselytizing in nature.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has come out strong against the proposal, writing the following in a letter posted its web site:
The bill they are considering, Senate Bill 98, would let school districts overrule the objections of religious minorities and organize school-sponsored prayer under the banner of student government. Under the bill, school officials would be able to skirt the Constitutional protections of religious liberty by letting students actually vote on what kind of prayers the school will allow and conduct.
Religious expression is an individual liberty and shouldn't be put to a vote like a Prom King or Homecoming Court. SB98 would give schools free reign to make students feel like outsiders in the classroom, alienated from their peers, or compelled by peer pressure to engage in religious practices that go against their own beliefs.
The Anti-Defamation League has mirrored these statements, calling the bill "unnecessary, divisive and unconstitutional." ADL attorney David Barkey, who has testified against the bill, said, "It is setting schools up for costly litigation."
An identical bill has been introduced in the Florida State House by Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Republican from Keystone Heights.
While Siplin is confident about the bill's chances, it seems critics are prepared to enter into legislative and court battles, if needed. This story comes on the heels of a prayer mural dispute in Rhode Island and a New York City ban on public schools for worship use by churches.