Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill June 14 that requires all public schools in the state to sponsor a one-minute moment of silence. It’s a completely unnecessary measure.
Florida already had a law allowing for moments of silence, but the new law makes them mandatory. The old law was also unnecessary. Moment-of-silence laws exist in several states, and they are almost always about currying favor with religious voters, not protecting students’ rights.
Despite what Christian nationalists believe, truly voluntary prayer has never been removed from public schools. In 1962 and ’63, the Supreme Court struck down laws that compelled or pressured students to take part in prayer and Bible reading. (The law that was struck down in 1962’s Engel v. Vitale would have allowed public schools to sponsor a so-called “non-denominational” prayer written by a government committee.) Those rulings left voluntary prayer by students intact. Furthermore, students can pray at the beginning of the day, over lunch, before they take a test or whenever they feel the need as long as they don’t disrupt others. They don’t need to confine themselves to a ritualized 60 seconds of silence at the start of the day.
Formalizing a minute of silence in public schools, especially in the Bible Belt, usually has more to do with politics than religion. That appears to be the case here as well. The Associated Press reported that DeSantis signed the bill at an orthodox synagogue in the city of Surfside and that the ceremony had the “air of a campaign event.” Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of The Shul of Bal Harbour introduced DeSantis as a “great governor and future world leader.” (DeSantis is running for reelection next year, and there has been speculation that he might seek the presidency in 2024.)
While the bill was considered in the legislature, lawmakers claimed it was just to give students a chance to stop and reflect. But during the signing, DeSantis remarked, “It’s something that’s important to be able to provide each student the ability, every day, to be able to reflect and to be able to pray as they see fit. The idea that you can just push God out of every institution, and be successful – I’m sorry, our Founding Fathers did not believe that.”
No one is pushing God out of our institutions. What Americans United and others work for is ending government-sponsored force and pressure in matters of religion. DeSantis invoked the Founding Fathers, but he fails to understand what they believed: They were dead set against allowing the government to use its powers to compel anyone to take part in or support religion against his or her will.
Americans United will continue to ensure that our public schools welcome students of all faiths and those who are non-religious. We can best do that by keeping the schools focused on teaching, not preaching.
P.S. To learn more about the issue of prayer in public schools, see this special issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.