TALLAHASSEE — After hours of sweat-stained athletic camaraderie, Pace High School coach Mickey Lindsey must walk away from his players the moment they begin to pray.
"I believe in a family atmosphere, and for me to have to walk away from my kids when they want to lead a prayer, this is me turning my back on them," he said. "That is not family."
The controversial religious ban enforced by the Santa Rosa County School District last year has incited national debate over religious freedom and constitutional protections.
Now, the battle has come to the Florida Legislature, where the House PreK-12 Policy Committee approved a measure Wednesday that would allow teachers to pray with public school students.
Citing the conflict in Santa Rosa County, lawmakers said students should be allowed to pray at school. The proposed law would prohibit school boards from discouraging "inspirational" messages at voluntary events and would protect teachers who bow their heads during student-led prayers.
Critics and supporters alike say the bill is about constitutional freedoms.
"This is not necessarily a prayer bill," said Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, a co-sponsor of the legislation. "This is a rights bill."
But opponents argue that government has no business institutionalizing religious speech.
"This is not about protecting free speech," said Courtenay Strickland, a lobbyist for the Florida American Civil Liberties Union. "It is about trampling on the free exercise of religion."
In a last-ditch effort to appease critics, the House committee stripped the words "prayer" and "invocation" from the bill Wednesday just before approving it in a 10-3 vote.
But that did little to quell complaints that the bill creates the potential that students who are of a minority will be marginalized.
Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, recalled growing up Jewish among Christian teammates who prayed at wrestling matches. "There was peer pressure for to me to be there and listen to them," he said.
Minorities attending school football games and dances shouldn't be forced to experience that discomfort, he said.
Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, argued the proposed law does not promote religious indoctrination.
"If I don't agree with a prayer that someone is saying, I sit there and think of something different," she said. "You are not forced to believe something just because you heard it."
Religious speech and public schools are a polemic combination that has long drawn legal debate. In Florida, lawmakers introduced school prayer bills in the past with no success.
But the Santa Rosa County incident drew flak from Christian groups that complained of religious intolerance and roused new support for the measure.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said the measure is inclusive, letting students, not administrators, decide how and where the speech is expressed. "Students will figure it out," he said.
But Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said the proposed law could create new disciplinary problems if students use it to promote hateful or discriminatory speech.
"You are now allowing immature individuals to possibly say something that is outlandish," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.