Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a controversial law that would allow student prayer at mandatory school events, prompting several groups opposed to the law to warn school districts against implementing it, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.
The measure signed by Scott (SB 98) would pave the way for local districts to approve policies allowing students to decide whether to have another student deliver an “inspirational message” at school events. Scott signed the bill without comment.
Supporters say the measure would simply reaffirm the right of Florida students under the First Amendment to proclaim their religious beliefs without fear of being restricted by government.
They said the country was in danger of becoming unmoored from the religious traditions that guide the nation.
“When we took school prayer … out of school, it’s clearly documented that school discipline — disciplinary cases went up, that we had a lot more school vandalism, that we had a lot more disrespect for schools, including the physical plant as well as school personnel, teachers and principals,” Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Keystone Heights Republican and House sponsor of the bill, said during a committee hearing in February.
But opponents of the bill said it would lead to potentially offensive messages and could ensnare school districts in costly lawsuits. While supporters are largely viewed as trying to open up a channel for student prayer, both sides in the debate agree it could also allow messages that include Holocaust denial, racially-charged speeches, uncomfortable beliefs of some fringe religions or endorsements of sex and drugs, among many other topics.
On Friday, the ACLU of Florida, the Anti-Defamation League and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State each separately issued warnings to local school districts that going ahead with an inspirational message policy could subject them to costly legal challenges.
“Legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It’s wrong to subject students to coercive prayer and proselytizing. Our public schools should respect diversity, not undermine it.”