School Prayer Quagmire: Florida Governor Sends Schools Into Legal Swamp

No school is required to allow “inspirational messages,” but any that do may find themselves staring down a lawsuit. Guess who would have to pay the bill for that litigation? Hint: it’s not Rick Scott or legislators.

Legislation that will encourage coercive prayer in schools sat unsigned on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk for 15 days.

Was this a sign that the Florida Republican, who’d suggested that he was leaning toward the bill, had a change of heart?

Not so much. On March 23 Scott finally did what had been expected all along – he approved a bad bill that will allow “inspirational messages” in public schools.

Under the law, school boards may set policies that allow students to deliver these messages during the student portion of any school assembly. The messages are intended to mark “the formal or ceremonious observance of an occasion or event,” and no school officials will be permitted to review or edit the content.

This might sound like freedom of expression, but we all know what’s going on here. The measure is nothing short of a thinly veiled attempt to promote coercive prayer in schools. Supporters said so.

Scott and his allies in the Florida legislature have now opened the door for schools to wade into a constitutional quagmire. No school is required to allow “inspirational messages,” but any that do may find themselves staring down a lawsuit. Guess who would have to pay the bill for that litigation? Hint: it’s not Rick Scott or legislators.

As The Miami Herald reported, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said, “Legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp. I hope school board members turn down the invitation. It’s wrong to subject students to coercive prayer and proselytizing.”

With that in mind, Americans United sent a letter to all Florida school districts, advising them not to fall for Scott’s game. “Adoption of an ‘inspirational message’ policy,” the letter said, “ would likely subject your school district to costly and time-consuming litigation.” 

A number of religious leaders have also seen through this misguided school prayer plot. Three clergy who work with Americans United -- Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, the Rev. Harry Parrott and the Rev. Harold Brockus -- sent letters to legislators and the governor expressing opposition to the bill. (The missives were also signed by eight of AU's state chapters.)   

Brockus, president of AU’s Pinellas (Fla.) Chapter and one of the signers of the letter, told WFSU Public Radio (Tallahassee, Fla.) that a lawsuit is likely. He noted that court rulings have never barred truly voluntary prayer but the Constitution does bar government from promoting acts of worship.

“Students can now pray in school,” Brockus said. “We haven’t taken prayer out of school. What we’ve done is taken school out of prayer.”

Brockus also brought up an important point about church-state separation that Scott seems to have missed.

“The separation of church and state is an American creation,” Brockus told WFSU. “It’s like Jazz. And it’s one of the jewels in our crown. And although it’s not always been observed, I hate to see it taken away from us.”