HB 31: School Prayer Strikes Back in Florida

On Tuesday morning, I found out that a hearing was scheduled for Wednesday morning on a school prayer bill in the Florida House PreK-12 Education Policy Committee.  This bill has been around for a number of years, and thankfully, hasn’t been passed by the legislature.

I also learned that the bill sponsors were going to offer a substitute bill.  The substitute took a bad bill and made it worse.  The original bill essentially would have put into law the policy that the Supreme Court said was unconstitutional in Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, where students voted on whether there should be prayer before football games.

The substitute changed some words but the result was that when students requested prayers, school officials could do nothing to stop the prayer.  Even though the Supreme Court has said that prayer at school events — even at noncompulsory ones like football games — is coercive and unconstitutional.  AU sent a letter, signed by three of our Florida chapter leaders who are ordained clergy, to oppose the bill.

The substitute also added confusing language that was an attempt to respond to the consent agreement in Does v. School Board for Santa Rosa County, saying that school administrators cannot enter “into any agreement, that infringes or waives the rights or freedoms afforded” to teachers and students. 

Turns out that one of the bill sponsors is from Santa Rosa County and is pushing this bill as a way to “protect” students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights.  And testifying on behalf of the bill were the principal of the high school at the center of the case as well as the school’s athletic director and football coach.  A lot of the AD’s and coach’s testimony focused on how coaches should have a right to be able to acknowledge the spontaneous player-led prayer that is such an important part of football.  It all sounded very familiar to me — these were the same losing arguments Coach Borden made in a case AU won in New Jersey in 2008.

Despite clear arguments about the bill’s unconstitutionality by Rep. Kiar and Rep. Rader and arguments by Rep. Bullard based on his personal experience as an educator that administering school prayers would be a nightmare, these three were the only Committee members to vote against the bill.

The bill must now be approved by several other committees before it can move to the House floor.  We hope that the other committees will have more concern for the Establishment Clause.