TALLAHASSEE — Students and teachers in Florida's public schools would more explicitly have the right to say the Lord's Prayer, pray to Allah or worship Satan under a highly polarizing measure that's being fast-tracked through the Florida Senate as the 2017 session begins this week.
Called a "religious liberties" bill, SB 436 is intended to "clarify First Amendment rights of free speech, specifically as they apply to religious expression," said Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who's driving the measure in the Senate.
"I grew up in an America where you were free to express your faith, and there was no intimidation of whether you could say 'Jesus' out loud or not," Baxley said. "This is where we've come: The pendulum has swung so far that there's been a chilling effect on people of faith of just expressing and being who they are."
While comments before the Senate Education Committee on Monday heavily emphasized a need to protect Christians, Baxley's bill would shield students, teachers and school staff of all faiths from religious discrimination — protections already guaranteed through the Florida and U.S. Constitutions, as well as U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Representatives of conservative Christian organizations argue the extra protection is needed because, they say, schools arbitrarily restrict religious expression. For example, Anthony Verdugo, founder of the Miami-based Christian Family Coalition, told senators he'd heard from a Hillsborough County parent last week who reported his child's teacher asked the student to "remove a chain with a cross because it's a gang symbol."
"Let's separate fact from fiction," Verdugo said. "SB 436 is an equality bill; it prohibits discrimination."
But critics of Baxley's proposal — including the Anti-Defamation League and Equality Florida — argue the measure is "too broad" and could actually allow for discrimination, not stop it. They worry students or teachers could force their religious beliefs on others and that the bill could potentially lead to bullying of those who don't share their beliefs, are non-religious or are members of a minority religion, such as Islam or Judaism.
"Equality Florida firmly supports freedom of religion, but we also know that religion is sometimes used as a license to discriminate," said Hannah Willard, public policy director for the LGBT-rights group. "It (the bill) is written in such a broad way ... that it could allow for unsafe situations for those who are religious minorities or LGBTQ or are in any way outside traditional conservative Christianity."
When asked about potential discrimination against religious minorities, Baxley told the Times/Herald: "I don't think we're the ones that are intolerant at this stage." He clarified that by "we" he meant the "Christian family."
The Senate Education Committee advanced Baxley's bill by a 5-2 vote, with Democrats opposing. While bills traditionally face at least three committees, the measure will be heard by only one other committee: Judiciary, which is chaired by Baxley's co-sponsor, Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also endorses the proposal.
The bill would take already-established rights of religious expression and explicitly codify them in state law, such as by stating definitively that school districts cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.
It also would reinforce students' rights to express religious beliefs in their classwork, wear clothing or jewelry that displays a religious message, and pray or engage in religious activities before, during and after the school day in the same way that any other school group might gather.
Baxley said that "without this free religious expression, we are in fact establishing a state-sponsored religion: It's called secular humanism — and if you believe anything else, then you're supposed to be quiet."
Prayer and religious expression are already allowed in public schools, so long as they are initiated by students and not sponsored or hosted by the school itself.
One of the most controversial provisions of the bill would require school districts to adopt a Florida Department of Education-crafted policy that "establishes a limited public forum for student speakers at any school event" — which would allow students of different faiths to, for example, pray at school assemblies.
Lighthouse Point Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, who cast one of the opposing votes on Monday, objected to the "coercive nature" of the bill. He said he already sees peer pressure among students through the occasional prayer circles at basketball games his daughter plays in.
"If they choose not to participate, it makes it looks as though they're shunning or not being respectful of that religion and it does make them uncomfortable to the point where they feel almost compelled to be a part of that activity," Farmer said. "I think for many students of what I'll call minority faiths, these types of activities at school events could be seen to them as somewhat coercive and divisive."
Other opponents raised another potential scenario: that the measure would give rise to Satanic clubs or religious-affiliated hate groups expressing their beliefs in school-day activities and at school events, alongside students of more traditional religions.
Farmer warned such groups "could use this type of access as a sword for some very, very divisive, intimidating and maybe threatening beliefs."
A House version (HB 303) of Baxley's bill, sponsored by Democrats Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville and Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes, hasn't been considered.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark