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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

School prayer gets discussed, then postponed



A school prayer bill similar to one lawmakers have taken up in the past got a hearing in a Florida Senate education committee meeting Tuesday -- but not a vote for now, after opponents said the proposal would be unconstitutional.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, would allow the delivery of an "inspirational message," including prayer, at "noncompulsory" middle and high school events. Student government would have to decide on giving such a message, which could only be delivered by students. School personnel would not be allowed to participate or influence the message.

"There is no participation from the school board, the principal, the coaches or anybody else," Siplin said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League said the measure could be interpreted as school-sponsored religious speech, which is unconstitutional.

"It's going to cost the schools a lot in litigation," said David Barkey, an attorney for the ADL.

The bill would require messages to be "nonsectarian and nonproselytizing." But the only way to ensure that, critics argued, would be for a teacher or principal to police the remarks ahead of time.

Siplin and Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican and the committee's chairman, said that students would not be forced to participate in the message.

Barkey said that while certain school events might not be mandatory, students could feel ostracized if they don't take part in them -- and further divided if they practice a different religion, or no religion at all, than one referenced in a prayer. Students, Barkey stressed, are free to pray or participate in religious clubs at school before and after school and during lunch and recess.

After listening -- and sometimes butting heads with -- the bill's opponents, Wise postponed the legislation for now. A similar measure has not moved in the House.

[Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 3:10pm]


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