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School prayer bill passes House, awaits Rick Scott's signature

TALLAHASSEE — After winning the overwhelming approval of the Florida House on Thursday, a bill that would allow student-led prayer in public schools seems all but certain to become law.

The bill's backers say Gov. Rick Scott has told them he would sign the legislation.

Under the bill, local school districts would be able to vote to allow any student to deliver "inspirational messages" at public school events. Teachers and other school employees could not take part.

The lopsided 88-27 vote in the House came after an hour of impassioned debate.

Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat who shepherded the proposal, had said the concept of an "inspirational message" was open to interpretation.

"It could be the 'I Have a Dream' speech, the Pledge of Allegiance, a blessing before a luncheon," he said. "It could also be a prayer."

Others felt differently.

"Everyone in this room knows that 'inspirational messages' means religious indoctrination," said Rep. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat.

Supporters stressed that participation by students would be optional. Some said the measure would teach tolerance and restore order to classrooms.

"Students are inundated with sex, gambling and all of the moral decay that's on our televisions," said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach. "It is time that we allowed . . . students to bring inspirational messages to share with each other."

Opponents fought back with fervor. Several challenged the bill's constitutionality. Others worried it would lead to bullying — or to false information being spread in schools.

"They could distort well-established historical facts. A child could preach that the Holocaust never occurred," said Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie.

The vote transcended party lines, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans in support of the bill.

After the bill passed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida issued a stinging criticism, saying the policy would result in costly litigation for school districts. The Anti-Defamation League said it would support any lawsuits with an amicus brief.

But Siplin was unapologetic.

"I hope they have some cash in the bank," he said of any party considering a lawsuit. "We're going to be seeking attorney's fees from them if they file a frivolous lawsuit."

If Scott signs the bill into law as expected, it will be up to local school boards to make a decision on how to proceed.

Pinellas County School Board member Janet Clark said she doesn't have a problem with students praying but worries about the level of wisdom some students might exercise.

"Kids just don't always have the best judgment, and I think it's really touchy," she said.

Pasco County School Board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong acknowledged that the board will have to consider any action very carefully.

"It's going to put a lot of liability on us to come up with a policy that would be appropriate and meet all the constitutional requirements of separation of church and state," she said.

Armstrong didn't like being placed in such a situation.

"The state Legislature has kind of thrown the school boards under the bus," Armstrong said, "by putting the burden on the school boards and off of the state Legislature" to deal with the constitutional issues.

Hernando School Board vice chairman Matt Foreman hadn't read the bill Thursday but said he doesn't have a philosophical disagreement with the idea.

"I believe there's nothing wrong with people practicing their religion in a way that's nondisruptive," said Foreman, a lawyer.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Mary Ellen Klas, Tony Marrero and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

School prayer bill passes House, awaits Rick Scott's signature 03/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 1, 2012 11:02pm]
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