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School prayer bill clears Florida Senate's Judiciary Committee

TALLAHASSEE — The contentious debate over school prayer is once again being played out before the Florida Legislature.

A bill that would allow voluntary, student-led prayer in secondary schools sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday — but not before meeting resistance from Anti-Defamation League officials, who called the bill "unnecessary, divisive and unconstitutional."

Said sponsor Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando: "All I'm trying to do is allow those School Boards and those students who want to partake in this type of activity (the opportunity) to do that."

School prayer has been argued in the halls of the Capitol before — and has almost always been polemic.

For years, the cause was championed by former state Rep. Wilbert "Tee" Holloway. In fact, Holloway, who is now a Miami Dade School Board member, became known for pushing the bill repeatedly to no avail.

This is at least the second year Siplin has filed a school prayer bill, he said.

"I think I'm in a different position to get this bill advanced (than in previous years)," said Siplin, who was first elected to the Senate in 2002. "My colleagues respect my decisions."

Siplin is hopeful the bill will gain traction this year. "I don't see anyone in the Senate opposing it," he said. "The majority of the Senate believes in prayer — and most of the House does, too."

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, has introduced an identical bill in the House.

Passing it may not be that easy. In 2009, a federal court struck down school prayer in Santa Rosa County in northwest Florida.

"It is setting schools up for costly litigation," said Anti-Defamation League attorney David Barkey, who testified against Siplin's bill.

If the bill were to become law, school boards could choose to allow "the use of an inspirational message, including prayers of invocation or benediction, at secondary school commencement exercises or any other noncompulsory student assembly."

Student volunteers would have to lead the prayers or benedictions, and school personnel would not be permitted to partake.

What's more, any activity would first require the blessing of the student government.

The proposal cleared its first hurdle in November, when it passed the Senate Education Committee by a 4-1 vote. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, voted no. The bill coasted through Thursday's Senate Judiciary Committee by a similar margin: 5-1.

The lone dissenter was Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who said the measure would compel high school students to participate in religious activities.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, disagreed, saying: "It is important to give students and schools the option to have student-led prayer."

Siplin was pleased.

"God bless y'all," he told senators after the vote. "I'm praying for you."

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com

School prayer bill clears Florida Senate's Judiciary Committee 01/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 8:34pm]
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