Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed legislation that critics say will encourage coercive prayer in public schools, tossing the matter into the hands of local school officials.
Under the new law, school boards in the state may set policies that allow students to deliver “inspirational messages” during ostensibly “student-run” portions of any school assembly. The messages are supposed 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.
Critics, including Americans United, said legislators’ comments made it clear that the measure is intended to reintroduce school-sanctioned prayer and is thus unconstitutional. Scott allowed the bill to sit on his desk for 15 days before signing it into law with no public ceremony on March 23.
No school is required to adopt a policy on “inspirational messages,” but those that do may find themselves in court.
Immediately after Scott signed the bill, Americans United sent letters to every school district in the state, urging officials to ignore the scheme. The Florida ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League did so as well.
The three organizations warned local school officials that if they implement a policy that violates students’ rights, they will be sued.
“Adoption of an ‘inspirational message’ policy, would likely subject your school district to costly and time-consuming litigation,” observed the AU letter.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told the Miami Herald, “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.”
A number of religious leaders in the state also spoke out against the bill. Three clergy who are Americans United activists – 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 Chapter and one of the signers of the letter, told WFSU Public Radio that the law will likely spark a lawsuit. 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 observed. “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.”
The bill came about thanks to an aggressive push by Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) and Rep. Charles Van Zant (R-Keystone Heights). During debate on the House floor, Van Zant argued that public schools are dangerous because official prayer has been removed.
“Before we removed inspirational messages, the number one problem was talking out of turn,” the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that Van Zant said. “Now, it’s drug abuse.”