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Provision may stall education measure

A year after an emotional debate over school prayer, lawmakers are fighting again about religion in public schools.

Yet again, the debate is tangling up popular legislation to raise standards for high school students.

On Thursday, the state House joined the Senate in approving legislation that would require students to make a 2.0 grade point average to graduate, take algebra and meet other new requirements.

But both chambers' bills contain a provision that critics say invites religion into public classrooms, raising new fears that Gov. Lawton Chiles will veto the standards bill. Last May, the governor vetoed a standards bill because it would have allowed students to pray aloud at school events.

With education a top priority, lawmakers returned this session determined to pass the standards bill without a prayer provision.

There is no prayer this time, but the House and Senate bills both would allow teachers to post certain "historical documents" in their classrooms, including the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and writings and speeches of U.S. presidents and signers of the Constitution.

Supporters say the provision is aimed at allowing history to be taught without censorship. Some writings of the nation's forefathers might include references to their faith, said John Dowless, executive director of Florida's Christian Coalition.

But critics say the language is a sneaky way to allow religion into public schools, as well as documents that may contain racist and sexist language.

"We're running at least a risk of another veto," Rep. Steven Geller, D-Pembroke Pines, told his colleagues Thursday.

It's too early to tell how Chiles will react, said spokeswoman April Herrle. The House and Senate have to combine their bills, which vary slightly, into a single measure before it can go to the governor for approval.

House Speaker Daniel Webster pointed out Thursday that the provision was in the standards bill sent to the governor last year _ but Chiles "didn't even bring it up in his veto message." But others say that's only because Chiles focused on school prayer.

This week, the state House argued so much about the provision that Webster delayed action on the standards bill so lawmakers could smooth out their differences.

Thursday, the House voted for the compromise that would ensure teachers aren't taking sentences or paragraphs in historical documents out of context. In addition, documents referring to outdated laws or judicial decisions would have to be accompanied by a statement indicating that they are "no longer the law of the land." No material chosen for posting could advance "a particular, religious, political, or sectarian purpose."

State Rep. Shirley Brown, D-Sarasota, voted against the bill. She fears thousands of students could flunk or drop out because of the higher standards. A legislative analysis shows that 252,388 students _ nearly 40 percent of the ninth- through 12th-graders in 1995-96 _ had grade point averages below 2.0.