TALLAHASSEE — Republican senators sat aghast Tuesday as Pace High School principal Frank Lay described the religious ban at his public school.
"They stopped wearing crosses," he said of the Panhandle school's faculty. "They put their Bibles away."
Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, urged action.
"We can lose our freedoms in America very fast," he warned.
Beset by tales of sectarian conflict and censored teachers, Republican legislators are behind several efforts to expand religion's role in the education system.
Under a measure sponsored by Wise, teachers would be allowed to pray with children, behavior long frowned upon by opponents who say mixing faith and public schools marginalizes some students. The legislation passed unanimously Tuesday in the Senate's Education PreK-12 Committee, with proponents defending it as a necessary protection of free speech. Versions of the bill (SB 1580/HB 31) have sailed through other committees in both the Senate and House.
Republican lawmakers are also behind a measure that would repeal the state's century-old ban on funneling public dollars toward religious groups. The proposed constitutional amendment could greatly expand Florida's controversial private school voucher program.
If approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate, the bill (SJR 2550/HB 1399) would be one of many sweeping changes facing voters on the November ballot. It needs 60 percent of the vote to become law.
The bill amounts to "government-run religion," said Courtenay Strickland, director of public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which organized a news conference against the legislation at the Capitol earlier this week.
Religious-tinged legislation has arisen in the traditionally conservative House before, only to eventually die in the Senate. But, this year, as the Senate continues to shift toward the hard right, proponents said the prospect of the bills going all the way appears bullish.
Sen. Nancy Detert, chairwoman of the Senate's Education Committee, pointed out that religion already plays a role in state government, where a faith leader opens every floor session with an invocation.
"I have stood through some upsetting prayers where I rolled my eyes," said Detert, R-Venice. "But it doesn't kill me to listen to someone else's prayer."
Religion in schools, however, is a historically polarizing subject. Introducing certain faiths into the learning environment will inevitably leave children vulnerable to indoctrination or intimidation, opponents argue.
"You are the ultimate role model for your children," said Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, who criticized the so-called school prayer bill during Tuesday's committee meeting. "They look up to you, and whatever you do they consider that as correct or that is what they should do."
Opponents of the legislation who cite the First Amendment argue that using state dollars to fund religious activity is a violation of constitutional protections that prohibit state-sponsored religion.
Rich Templin, a spokesman for the Florida AFL-CIO labor organization, said churches have called his organization to protest the ballot measure.
The measure's success, he said, "would set up a new cottage industry of religious organizations sending lobbyists here competing for precious public dollars. … Invariably one denomination or one faith will be given preferable treatment over another."
The proposed amendment would eliminate the following language from the state Constitution: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination."
It would add new constitutional language: "An individual may not be barred from participating in any public program because that individual has freely chosen to use his or her program benefits at a religious provider."
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, acknowledged that the bill has drawn many opponents. He said he would be willing to amend it to ensure its passage.
"This is a tough bill," he said. "I'm flexible."
On Friday, the House Majority Office sent out an e-mail to announce the bill would not be sent forward. Staff director Todd Reid said Senate leaders had expressed doubt about the bill, which prompted his e-mail.
Lawmakers then rallied behind the bill, indicating its widespread support among the Republican majority.
"Today, people are educated and sophisticated enough. If they choose to allow their children to go to a temple school, or a Catholic school or … a Seventh-day Adventist school, I think we've fulfilled the mission of public education," said Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council, where the measure moved forward last week.
In Santa Rosa County, where educators, students and parents are still reeling from last year's prayer ban, any change that protects informal religious practices is welcome, teachers said.
"This is not about religion," Pace High School coach Mickey Lindsey said. "It is about rights."