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Prayer bill has a bitter flavor

A budget that's a disaster in progress. Old, worsening quarrels over medical malpractice, worker's compensation and nursing homes. Class size. High-speed rail. With so much already in dispute, why are some Florida legislators picking another needless fight over school prayer?

The so-called "voluntary" bill (HB 243) that sailed out of the House Judiciary Committee last week does nothing more, according to its sponsors, than restate what federal courts have said about prayers organized solely by students for students. If that is so, then why make a law _ other than to score cheap publicity points for re-election?

The danger in this course is of prompting school boards _ and through them, students _ to have prayers in situations that might not have occurred to them if the Legislature hadn't meddled. Though the bill stipulates "nonsectarian" and "nonproselytizing" prayer, it is constitutionally impossible for school authorities to enforce that.

Sad experience teaches what happens next. As Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, points out, "Deeply held beliefs are sometimes the most difficult to avoid imposing on others. No matter their intentions, the bill would result in the beliefs of the majority being imposed on the minority."

It was disappointing that Rep. John Carassas, R-Belleair, voted yes. He contends that the legislation is "about as vanilla as you can get." Not so. It's essentially the same bill that has provoked bitter debate almost every session since 1996, when Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed it.

What Chiles said then bears repeating:

"The school prayer provision, as it is contained within this bill, would reduce this profound and spiritual devotion to school board and classroom debate . . . I reach the conclusion that it is better for us to reverently honor prayer as individuals, in our places of worship, in our homes, and in our hearts."

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