School prayer bill survives its first Florida House committee
Considered all but dead two weeks ago, a bill to allow Florida public school students of all ages to conduct prayers or inspirational messages in school passed its first House committee on Monday along partisan lines.
The bill, which already has passed the Senate 31-8, faced opposition from Democrats, who suggested there was no need for this legislation.
"If there's no existing prohibition on freedom of speech in the schools ... then what's the rationale behind the bill?" asked Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.
David Barkey of the Anti-Defamation League called the bill "unnecessary, religiously divisive and coercive." He also expected it would be found unconstitutional because it would require students to participate in a specific kind of message, an inspirational one.
In the wrong hands, that could be problematic, added Rep. Luis Garcia Jr., D-Miami Beach. "What's to prevent them from worshipping the Devil?" he asked.
Republicans said the measure does nothing more than protect students' right to speak their minds. They might be mean sometimes, but more often than not they will be thoughtful.
"Tolerance goes both ways," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. If a child hears a message he or she doesn't agree with, "they are learning the lesson of tolerance."
Added Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, "All this bill does is allow kids to inspire one another. It's as simple as that."
Democrat Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed of Deerfield Beach said she looked forward to the bill heading to the Judiciary Committee, where some constitutional concerns might be worked out that might allow her to back the bill if it gets to the House floor. Then she joined her colleagues in voting against it.
Before the vote, sponsor Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, urged support with this message: "Whenever you suppress free speech and student inspiration at any age, that is hate. When free speech and inspiration is fostered ... that is love."
He thanked the panel after its vote to move the bill forward. "Thank you Mr. Chair," he said. "Bless all of you."