Battle lines drawn in Tallahassee over push for student-led prayer in schools

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Legislature is on course for another culture wars fight, after a House panel approved a measure Monday that could authorize student-led prayer in elementary, middle- and high schools.

The legislation (CS/SB 98) already has cleared the usually more moderate Senate. But the House Education Committee divided sharply along party lines before a Republican majority approved the proposal by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights.

"Schools have been restricted from free speech," Van Zant said, before the 9-6 vote. "We need to open up the schools to free speech so that students can say what's on their minds, without censorship from the administration."

Van Zant's bill would allow school boards to adopt policies giving students authority to deliver "an inspirational message," during the student portion of any assembly. Administrators, teachers, coaches and other school personnel would be prohibited from reviewing the message or editing it.

Democrats fought the proposal -- warning that it was likely unconstitutional, or at least would ensnare school districts in lengthy and costly lawsuits over any policy they adopted.

Critics warned the legislation could especially make young children feel uncomfortable or excluded, particularly if the message touched on issues of race or ethnicity. Religious views at odds with those of some students could spark deep divisions, they warned.

Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, said it was wrong to make students subject to the unalloyed views of any individual student. "What if a student has a warped idea of what is an inspirational message?" Kiar said.

But supporters of the proposal ridiculed opponents as effectively battling First Amendment freedoms.

"What scares me the most is those who think we need to direct what students think," said Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

Florida has struggled over school prayer for decades -- a political landscape that includes late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoing a prayer bill which cleared the 1996 Legislature.

The ACLU and Anti-Defamation League lined up opposed to the Van Zant proposal, while the conservative Florida Family Action Council said Monday it supports the measure, whose Senate sponsor, Gary Siplin, is an Orlando Democrat.

But the Liberty Counsel, an influential Orlando-based nonprofit that advances religious freedom issues, told the Post that it would urge House members to defeat Van Zant's proposal.

"I'm an advocate of student speech," said Mat Staver, founder of the counsel. "But this bill will run into constitutional problems and I don't think it's right to make school districts litigate this issue again -- and they will have to."

Staver said he was involved for eight years in a lawsuit stemming from the Duval County School Board's approval of allowing student-led prayer at high school graduation ceremonies. In a court battle that stretched to the U.S. Supreme Court, prayers were eventually upheld -- generally as long as they're voluntary.

Florida law also allows students to have a brief period -- no more than two minutes -- at the start of each school day for silent prayer or meditation. Volunteer prayer groups also are authorized to meet at schools.

"As long as we have examinations and testing, we'll always have prayer in school," Van Zant, a former teacher and school board member, told the committee.

But that view helped fuel opponents, who argued that the legislation is unnecessary.

Michael Allen, a constitutional law professor at Stetson University, said the fight over how far school prayer should go is almost always ready to be reignited. The "war on religion" theme has coursed through the presidential campaign, Allen pointed out.

He also said advocates on opposing sides are committed, and willing to engage in the legal siege any legislation to change existing standards will naturally trigger.

Indeed, the ACLU said Monday that if Van Zant's proposal becomes law, the organization would almost certainly sue to declare it unconstitutional.

But at a time when many critics are examining the size and cost of government, Allen questioned whether it was right for lawmakers to enact laws which likely will require county school boards -- and local taxpayers -- to pay at least thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend them.

"You know the lawsuits will be filed against counties that try to enact a school prayer policy," Allen said. "It really amounts of a form of unfunded mandate. You know the Legislature's not going to pay the legal costs."

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