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  1. Florida Politics

Florida Senate takes 'stand for liberty' in passing religious freedom bill for schools over Democratic concerns

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's public schools would have to let students lead religious prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events under a controversial proposal that the state Senate approved Thursday.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, heralded his bill (SB 436) as a way for lawmakers to "take a stand for liberty," because it makes explicitly clear the rights to religious expression that students and teachers have in public schools, regardless of their faith.

But Democrats worry the measure goes beyond existing protections of religious freedom and violates the constitutional separation between church and state. They also fear it could lead to students and teachers being ostracized or discriminated against if they're of non-Christian faiths or nonreligious.

The bill passed on a 23-13 vote, with Sen. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami Shores, voting with Republicans in support.

Baxley's proposal — which has large support from Christian and conservative-leaning groups — is more controversial and more far-reaching than a companion measure that's moved through the House with, so far, unanimous support. The full House could vote on its bill (HB 303) as early as next week.

Both bills make clear students' and teachers' rights to express their religious beliefs "in written and oral assignments," to wear jewelry that has a religious message, and to participate in student-sponsored religious groups before, during and after school.

But Baxley's bill goes further in also requiring school districts to adopt policies allowing for "limited public forums" so that students of different faiths can say prayers at school events, like assemblies and football games.

"We owe our educators some clarity on this so it can be applied uniformly across the state and in a way that respects all faiths and (people of) no faith," Baxley said.

Religious expression is already protected under the state and U.S. constitutions, and Democrats said extra guidance from the Legislature wasn't necessary.

"If there is a teacher that somehow misinterprets what current law and policy is, then that teacher should be counseled," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

But Republicans argued that public schools have overreacted in trying to keep religion out of the classroom — to the point where students are being discriminated against. (Anecdotal examples cited by lawmakers have all involved Christians.)

Earlier Thursday, a House committee unanimously sent its religious liberties bill to the floor.

Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, warned the measure might give way to Satanic cults practicing in Florida's public schools. One of the bill's Democratic co-sponsors, Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville, said: "Bills like this have passed in six other states, and they aren't having these problems."

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark.