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School districts gird for impact of Florida's new 'religious expression' law

Sunlake and Hernando high schools take a knee in prayer before a spring football game in 2015. Florida's new "Religious Expression in Public Schools" law raises questions about the limits of prayer in school settings. Some say it simply restates what's in current law, while others predict it will open the door to more religious proselytizing. [Times files]
Published Jul. 5, 2017

In world history lessons, as Pinellas County social studies specialist Matthew Blum knows well, religion is key.

The trick can be not letting it get out of hand.

Parents might challenge what's being taught, as they've done in Brevard and Collier counties. And students might assert one world view over another.

But strong teachers "have a great understanding of religious freedom and religious expression," Blum said, and know how to handle such situations. They allow room for discussion and include information from any variety of sources, but they insist that students meet the course standards and expectations when doing so.

It's nothing personal.

Florida's new law governing such matters, though, has some educators worried.

The name of the legislation alone — "Religious Expression in Public Schools" — highlighted the potential clash of ideas to come.

In Florida, as elsewhere, public schools have endeavored for years to maintain a strict separation between the secular and the sectarian, to avoid any hint of government unconstitutionally promoting religion. Think, for example, of the Pasco County superintendent reminding high school football coaches not to pray with their teams before games, to avoid any misunderstanding.

But a backlash has been building among students and parents who contend the schools might be violating that other part of the First Amendment, which says government may not prevent the "free exercise" of religion. Complaints surfaced in Hillsborough County, for one, of teachers who told students they could not carry rosary beads in school.

So when Gov. Rick Scott put his name on the bill in early June, school district lawyers and policy writers scrambled to figure out how to incorporate the new rules in time for the July 1 effective date. Students and staff return to campus in early August, and they need to know what to expect.

Supporters of the bill were optimistic.

After all, much of the measure simply reiterated and clarified what already was known: Students have a right to refer to religion in their schoolwork, so long as it relates to the lesson at hand. They also have the right to pray without interference, so long as they're not interrupting the lesson at hand.

"It really doesn't set forth any new law. In fact, it restates existing law," said Mat Staver, chairman of Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, which fights for religious civil rights. Still, he said, "Having this in the statute will be very beneficial. Schools don't want to be sued. They've got better things to do. And people don't want their religious rights violated."

But that's the very concern of others who say the law will complicate an issue that needed no clarification.

David Barkey, religious freedom counsel and southeastern area counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, suggested the Legislature took one step beyond the Constitution in requiring school districts to establish a policy that provides a forum for student religious expression. Districts were given the option to do so five years ago with an "inspirational messages" law, and none acted.

Barkey also observed that the law could open the door to unfettered religious commentary in the public schools. He pointed to the first line of the law after the section name: "A school district may not discriminate against a student, parent, or school personnel on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression."

If a school cannot discriminate against any type of religious expression, he said, it could result in a classroom teacher who ad libs controversial views into a lesson to children who have no recourse but to listen.

Brandon Haught, a Volusia County high school science teacher who runs the Florida Citizens for Science blog, had big concerns.

"There are teachers who do teach science but who don't believe in evolution," Haught said. "This could embolden them to say, 'The law is on my side' " and start covering topics such as creationism or intelligent design in their classes.

The law does not speak directly to that issue.

He noted, too, that the new law allows students to express their viewpoints in their assignments, and that they will be graded in accordance with the standards. But he wondered whether a grade could be considered discrimination if the teacher challenges the student's views and suggests revisions.

"What's the consequence of that?" Haught asked.

Barkey also observed the sweep of the measure, along with a seeming lack of limits.

"I don't think the unintended consequences were well thought out," he said. "I feel sorry for the school board attorneys who have to deal with this."

They're already girding for the possibilities.

The Pasco County School District, for instance, has Neola — the firm that updates its policy manual quarterly — examining revisions, board attorney Dennis Alfonso said. For his own part, Alfonso added, he will be looking at whether districts can be "more restrictive than the law."

Lisa Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas County school system, said the district's lawyers are in a "wait and see mode" to determine whether the law raises any constitutional concerns. The administration, meanwhile, is awaiting a model policy on the student forum from the Florida Department of Education before developing its own new rules.

So, too, is the Hillsborough County School District, which then will train principals and teachers.

"The rest of it, we already have policies and practices in place," Wolf said.

Blum, the social studies specialist, sounded confident that teachers, at least, will handle it all in stride.

"If an issue would arise, we would have to deal with it case by case," he said. "I don't know that any of this changes the work that social studies teachers are doing."

Haught agreed that for many educators, the new law likely won't be a big deal.

"But if it happens in one classroom," he said, "it's enough."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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