BROOKSVILLE — Florida school boards will soon be free to set a policy allowing students to deliver "inspirational messages" at school events, but that appears unlikely to happen in Hernando County anytime soon.
A majority of Hernando's five School Board members told the Tampa Bay Times they generally support the new measure signed into law last month by Gov. Rick Scott. They are reluctant to act, however, because of the legal challenges that would almost surely follow by groups that maintain the policy violates the U.S. Constitution.
Board members also noted that they have not received requests urging them to take up the issue.
"I don't intend to ask the board for action unless I hear from the constituents that it's something they want," said vice chairman Matt Foreman, an attorney. "We're not going to pass policies just to pass policies."
Sponsored by Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat, the law, which takes effect July 1, allows boards to adopt a policy stating that students of any age "who are responsible for organizing any student-led portion of a student assembly" can decide whether an inspirational message will be read and then choose volunteers to lead the message. Administrators, teachers, coaches and other school personnel would be prohibited from reviewing the message or editing it.
The word "prayer" was stricken from earlier versions of the bill.
"It could be the 'I Have a Dream' speech, the Pledge of Allegiance, a blessing before a luncheon," Siplin said after Scott signed the bill. "It could also be a prayer."
Board chairwoman Cynthia Moore said she was excited to hear that Scott signed the bill. The board should consider a policy, Moore said, but she's also fine with waiting.
"I think it's about time (prayer) got back into schools," she said. "Sure, we can wait until next year, if that's what the board wants to do, and let somebody else test the waters."
Board member James Yant, who says a Christian prayer when it's his turn to provide the invocation before board meetings, bristles at the notion of a legal challenge.
"There should not be, from a legal perspective, some group coming in and telling you what you can and can't do," Yant said.
Board members Dianne Bonfield and John Sweeney said they see no need to fix what apparently isn't broken.
"I've not heard complaints, and when you don't hear complaints, you think everything is copacetic," Bonfield said. "I think the students are satisfied and the community is satisfied."
Tori Selby, the School Board's nonvoting student representative, said no students have broached the subject with her.
Speaking personally as a high school senior who has attended local public schools for years, Selby said, "As of right now I don't feel like Hernando has any issues with limiting anybody's faith in any way."
The potential legal and financial fallout makes superintendent Bryan Blavatt nervous.
"From a legal perspective, there's no question it's going to be challenged, and then the question is who incurs the legal cost of whatever litigation comes," Blavatt said. "I don't want to be the one, with the limited resources we have, launching it."
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In fact, school districts would have to cover the cost because the Legislature did not indemnify school boards from any litigation spurred by policies they might adopt, ACLU Florida executive director Howard Simon wrote in a letter to Florida's school superintendents after Scott signed the bill.
Simon's organization is one of at least three that sent letters to superintendents warning them to expect lawsuits if they adopt policies.
"It will be students and families who will suffer the most as limited school district funds will be directed toward defending an unnecessary and blatantly unconstitutional policy rather than improving educational opportunities," Simon wrote.
Citing the same U.S. Supreme Court cases, the Anti-Defamation League and Americans United for Separation of Church and State also contend the law sets up school boards to violate the Constitution. They point to Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a 2000 case in which the court ruled that a student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games was unconstitutional.
Opponents of the law say students already have plenty of religious freedom under the U.S. and Florida constitutions. Florida law allows students to have a brief period at the start of each school day for silent prayer or meditation. Volunteer prayer groups also are authorized to meet at schools.
"No student should be required to observe a prayer or other religious message contrary to his or her religious upbringing or faith at a mandatory student assembly," Andrew Rosenkranz, Florida regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, wrote to superintendents.
Rosenkranz warned of unintended consequences, noting that one student's inspirational message could be another's offensive rant. The messages, he wrote, could be "racist, anti-Semitic or otherwise disparage groups or individuals on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation."
Supporters of the bill frequently cite Adler v. Duval, an 11th Circuit Court decision in Florida allowing students to give uncensored two-minute messages at graduation ceremonies, even if the messages are religious in nature.
Siplin, who worked with Republicans to pass the bill, has dismissed the threat of lawsuits.
"If someone does file a lawsuit, it will be a frivolous lawsuit, and they'll end up paying whoever they sued attorneys' fees," he said last month.
School leaders throughout the state have expressed concern about potentially costly legal battles. But at least one, the Lake County School Board, is researching how such a policy might be created, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The board could discuss the matter during a workshop this summer.
The Florida School Boards Association is advising districts that are considering policies to take extreme caution due to the threat of litigation, said Ruth Melton, the group's director of legislative relations. The process, Melton said, should involve input from an attorney with experience in that area of law.
During a member conference in June, the association will provide some background information and training about religious expression in schools.
"Unfortunately, many people are under the impression that students aren't allowed to pray at all in school, and that simply isn't true." Melton said. "Any student, teacher or staff may pray or inspire to their heart's content as long as they're not disruptive and respectful of others."
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The law is "throwing red meat to the conservative base," said Bob Jarvis, a professor of constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University.
"The fact that it's being called an inspirational message can't hide the fact that it's really an attempt to sneak mandatory prayer into the public schools, and the Supreme Court has said you can't do it," Jarvis said. "You can call a duck whatever you want, but it's still a duck at the end of the day."
Beyond that, Jarvis said, the measure is ill conceived because it ties the hands of staffers who may have to deal with the consequences of offensive speech.
"What happens when the next kid gets up and says we have to get rid of all the Muslims?" Jarvis said. "Can they get involved when the auditorium turns into pandemonium and chaos?"
That's a real concern, students in Springstead High's Humanities and Etymology Club told a Times reporter who visited a recent meeting.
"The School Board says yes or no, but as soon as the decision is yes, the students can go haywire with that power," said senior Khalid Shakfeh,
Many students, but not all, would be fine with a Christian prayer, Shakfeh and other students agreed.
"I wouldn't be offended," said Shakfeh, who is Muslim. "I would just be uncomfortable."
But if a Muslim got up to offer a prayer?
"It would turn out very bad," said senior Hamad Sagheer, also a Muslim.
"You have to think of the maturity of the crowd," said junior Sandy Bolis. "There are people in high school who can't take it as respectfully because they're immature."
Springstead observes a moment of silence during morning announcements. Nathalia Boter, a senior and Catholic, says a prayer to herself. A similar practice could be observed during school events, Boter said.
"I think that moment of silence is sufficient," she said.
This report includes information from Times files. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]