TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Gary Siplin believes this is the year for school prayer.
Sure, Florida lawmakers have pitched the idea time and time again. But Siplin, a Democrat from Orlando, says his bill has momentum.
His proof? On Wednesday, the bill became among the first of the year to win approval from the Senate. It passed by a vote of 31-8.
"People are coming together behind the idea this year," Siplin said. "With the economy the way it is, everyone could use a little inspirational message."
Still, the vote Wednesday wasn't without controversy — and serious debate.
Siplin took heat for making significant changes to the bill before it reached the Senate floor.
If the bill were to become law, local school boards could allow student volunteers to deliver "inspirational messages" in public schools. District employees would not be able to participate or interfere.
The original version said inspirational messages could include "prayers of invocation or benediction" — and could only take place at optional student assemblies at high schools.
The new version removed the language about prayers and benedictions, but did not limit the inspirational messages to secondary schools or noncompulsory events. In other words, elementary-school students would be able to deliver voluntary, inspirational messages at mandatory school functions.
"In a last-minute change, the Senate has enacted a school prayer bill which is even worse for children's religious freedom than the version vetted through the committee process," said David Barkey of the Anti-Defamation League.
Siplin's fellow Democrats also raised issues.
"I do not think that it is appropriate for us to write a law that allows for prayer openly in our schools," said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami. "It is fine — it is really fine — for every child to pray in their own way. But they should keep it to themselves in a public school."
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said she worried about the potential for lawsuits.
"In the end, you will find that this bill is unconstitutional," Sobel said.
Senate Democrats cast each of the eight votes against the bill.
Two voted in favor: Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee and Sen. Oscar Braynon II of Miami Gardens. (Sen. Larcenia Bullard of Miami was excused.)
All of the Senate Republicans approved.
"Students have every right to share their faith, to share their point of view," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart. "This goes to our fundamental Constitutional rights as Americans."
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, gave her support because the bill lets school districts handle the issue.
School prayer bills — which are always hotly debated — have advanced this far before. In 1996, a school prayer bill passed through both chambers before being vetoed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles.
In the case of Siplin's bill, the House companion hasn't yet been scheduled in any subcommittees. And the window for subcommittee approval is growing smaller by the day.
Siplin said he was confident the House bill would start moving soon.
"I talked to top House brass and they're talking about getting it cooking this week," he said.
Either way, it would give Siplin a boost among Republican voters. Siplin is facing term limits in the Senate — and eyeing a congressional district that will likely have many conservative constituents.
Siplin said he's just happy to have bipartisan support on his bill.
Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.