Back in July, a law went into effect in Florida that allows school boards to adopt policies that permit students to deliver so-called “inspirational messages” – including prayer – at “noncompulsory” school events, such as graduations and other assemblies.
This law is a pretty poorly disguised attempt at injecting religion into schools. It doesn’t define what an “inspirational message” is, but legislators openly said they were angling to push prayers. The messages could even include a sermon or other type of proselytizing, which would be delivered to a captive audience at an official school event.
Americans United and our allies sent letters to all public school districts advising them to steer clear of this potential legal quagmire, and we have been pleased to note that so far no schools have attempted to implement this misguided policy.
Now it seems one school board official not only seeks to reverse that trend, he wants to extend official prayers to government meetings, too.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that John Fischer of the Flagler County School Board has twice made it known that he wants to see more government-sponsored prayers.
“There is no other county in Florida that has even talked about or even done anything about prayer in schools," Fischer said during a Feb. 5 board meeting. “But maybe we can revitalize (prayer) and be proactive versus reactive.”
Fischer, who described himself at a Jan. 22 meeting as “very proud to be a Catholic,” added at that meeting that he isn’t “going to be on a soapbox, but I think that we should give some consideration to maybe having prayer in our schools and our meetings.”
Fischer’s justification for the prayers, the newspaper reported, is that they offer relief from “hate.”
“Why can't we bring back the family values and bring the character that we’re known for instead of all this hate?” Fischer said during the Jan. 22 meeting. “Even in these chambers, I see people with hate, and it’s disgusting.”
Fischer, who also said prayer is absent from public forums because of “political correctness” didn’t respond to media requests for comment, but the newspaper noted that Flagler County schools already permit a two-minute moment of silence to start each school day. That policy is perfectly adequate.
Several school board members who did comment expressed reservations about Fischer’s ideas.
“I personally am not opposed to prayers but I think this brings up lots of legal issues,” Trevor Tucker told the News-Journal.
Sue Dickinson said she would be open to suggestions but realizes any prayer policy “would certainly have to be within our legal boundaries.”
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, of Temple Shalom in Deltona, Fla., and president of Americans United’s board of trustees, warned of the dangers that would come with allowing coercive prayers at government meetings and in public schools.
“In the end,” he said, “it's going to send a subtle signal that certain groups that are not associated with mainstream religion or not associated with religion at all are disenfranchised.”
Shapiro is exactly right, and Fischer is dead wrong.
Government-sponsored religion often is the source of intolerance, not a solution to hate.
Furthermore, implementation of the “inspirational messages” law is likely to spark a lawsuit. Just ask officials in Santa Rosa County, which is near the Alabama border. The ACLU in 2008 forced officials there to acknowledge that high school administrators had been promoting Christianity, which cost the county at least $500,000 in attorney fees, according to the Associated Press.
If Fischer gets his way, he won’t be eradicating hate. In fact, he’ll be generating it from the taxpayers he serves who will be forced to foot the bill for his reckless policy.
Americans United is keeping a close eye on Fischer. We advise him to drop his religious-political agenda and instead work on actually serving students and improving education.