When state lawmakers twist themselves into pretzels writing legislation, it often indicates they are trying to circumvent constitutional protections. That is what is happening with SB 98, which is entitled an education bill but that teaches only one thing: how to evade rules that bar prayer in school.
The legislation that has passed the Senate gives local school boards the discretion to allow student-led "inspirational messages" at student assemblies. But its true purpose is to encourage prayer that reflects the majority's faith at public schools. Beyond appealing to religious conservatives, there is no reason to adopt a measure like this, which undermines religious pluralism and inclusion and violates church-state separation.
Organized prayer at school violates the First Amendment even if it is student-led and offered at noncompulsory events such as football games or graduation ceremonies. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that prayer is proselytizing and shouldn't be an organized part of activities at a secular school. Schoolchildren who do not share the majority's beliefs often feel alienated and ostracized.
Florida's school prayer bill is an attempt to find a way around the court's rulings by giving students the ability to give inspirational messages, prayers or not (wink-wink), without school interference. This way school districts can ostensibly claim that the prayer was an exercise of student free speech and not a dictate of teachers or administrators. But if the only kind of speech a student may offer is "inspirational" then it's not very free, and by making it part of a school assembly it carries the imprimatur of the school.
Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, the bill's sponsor, had to rewrite the bill at the last minute to better buffer it from a legal challenge. As initially written, SB 98 gave school boards the power to allow inspirational messages including "prayers of invocation or benediction" at optional high school assemblies to be given by student volunteers. Siplin's revision removed the reference to prayers, but also made the measure applicable to all grades K-12 and all school assemblies. Imagine giving third-graders the right to address mandatory school assemblies with no adult guidance.
The 31 senators who approved Siplin's bill have little regard for the idea that public school is a place where children of all faiths and no faith come to learn, and they should all feel equally welcome. Finding some crevice to push prayer into school is all they care about, whether it's legal or not.