A Florida bill that claims to protect public-school students’ right to religious expression violates the separation of church and state by opening the door to certain coercive religious activities that are prohibited, Americans United says.
The Florida Senate passed SB 436 by a party-line vote of 23-13 on March 23, and an amended version of the bill, HB 303, passed in the state House on April 7. The amended bill now heads back to the Senate, where legislators will decide which version of the bill, if any, passes.
In a March 21 letter to the Florida Senate, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett noted that SB 436 is unnecessary given that public school students can already express their religious beliefs, join religious clubs and be protected from religious discrimination.
SB 436’s sponsor, Fla. Sen. Dennis Baxley (R), argued that these bills provide clarity to teachers “so that you don’t have varying interpretations of what’s appropriate and can actually have a policy that secures our First Amendment rights.” But Garrett notes that the opposite happens. The bills’ broad language doesn’t clarify limitations to “religious expression.”
“Although students have the right to engage in voluntary, student-initiated prayer that is not coercive and does not disrupt the school’s educational mission and activities, they may not utilize the classroom to proselytize their fellow students,” Garrett wrote. “This bill, however, does not clearly differentiate between student expression that relates to personal observance of religion and student expression that constitutes ‘outward promotion’ of religion or ‘proselytizes a particular view.’”