TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Students who wish to deliver “inspirational messages” at school events may soon be able to do so.
On Thursday the Florida House approved SB 98 on nearly a partly line vote which now sends it to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk for approval.
Supporters said the measure would simply reaffirm the right of Florida students under the First Amendment to proclaim their religious beliefs without fear of being restricted by government.
“Liberate these children and let them learn about real freedom,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
But opponents of the bill said it would lead to potentially offensive messages and could ensnare school districts in costly lawsuits. While supporters are largely viewed as trying to open up a channel for student prayer, both sides in the debate agree it could also allow messages that include Holocaust denial, racially-charged speeches, uncomfortable beliefs of some fringe religions or endorsements of sex and drugs.
A day earlier on the House floor, an opponent read part of the Aryan Satanic Manifesto and noted that school districts that put such policies in place would have to be prepared for students to do the same at school assemblies. If backers of the bill want students to be able to give Christian prayers as an inspirational message, they have to be prepared for Satanic, Muslim and other messages.
“They could say whatever they want,” said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie. “That scares me.”
But Rep. Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, said the chamber should trust students to keep the messages on-point and truly inspirational.
“Why would we ever think to sell our children short?” Ahern said.
And inspiration is a good thing, said Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami.
“The purpose of education is to inspire,” Bileca said. “Not just to get a job.”
Other critics said the bill would eventually lead to school districts or the state having to defend a law they said came too close to the state establishment of a religion barred by the Bill of Rights.
“We are going to get sued on this,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. “It’s not even a close call.”
Waldman was one of several Jewish members of the House who said that in many school districts inspirational messages will inevitably be Christian prayers that invoke Jesus and by definition, ostracize any Jewish children who happen to attend – and maybe others – who won’t feel welcome at public schools.
“We were in the minority always, and we felt it,” said Waldman about growing up Jewish. “This is just another attempt at dividing us and eliminating us. And we feel very strongly about this.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.