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  1. Florida Politics

More freedom to pray in public school? It's likely, but lawmakers have to compromise.

East Lake players and coaches pray together before a playoff football game between Durant and East Lake at East Lake High in Tarpon Springs in 2016. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers on either side of the Florida Capitol have different ideas as to what extent they should secure students' and teachers' rights to express religious beliefs in public schools — forcing the need for compromise before the Legislature can send a proposed law to the governor for his approval this spring.

A plan the Florida House approved Wednesday by a 114-3 vote fortifies basic rights to religious expression that are protected by the state and U.S. Constitution. The Senate two weeks ago endorsed language that does that, too, but that also goes much further — by also requiring schools to give students a "limited public forum" to pray and otherwise express their beliefs at school assemblies and other school-sanctioned events.

The two proposals were originally identical but a House committee quickly eliminated the more controversial elements in its version that remain in the Senate-approved bill.

Those House changes earned unanimous votes and bipartisan praise in the two committees that vetted them. The House measure was led by Democratic Reps. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville and Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes.

The House vote sent SB 436 back to the Senate — where senators can either make further changes or agree to the House language, which would then send the bill to Gov. Rick Scott's desk to be signed into law. Senators could potentially take it up as early as Thursday but it's more likely to happen next week.

The House language earned its first opposition on the floor Wednesday when three Democrats — Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Amy Mercado, both of Orlando, and Joseph Abruzzo, of Boynton Beach — voted "no."

During discussion the day before, Smith raised concerns about the constitutionality of the measure.

"We are potentially blurring the lines of the wall we have very clearly erected between church and state, and we could potentially be allowing school personnel to use the machinery of the state to promote a religious agenda," he said. (Daniels responded that she had no concerns about that happening, which sparked brief applause from the Republican-led chamber.)

Just before Wednesday's vote, Daniels said her bill "is not for people who do not want to pray. It's voluntary and non-intrusive. It gives liberty to people who need the opportunity to pray in Florida schools."

The House language makes clear that students have the freedom to:

• Express their religious beliefs in class assignments.

• Wear jewelry with religious symbols.

• Organize prayer groups or religious clubs that would have access to school facilities as any secular activity group already does.

It also would guarantee teachers and staff the ability to participate in student-initiated religious activities before or after the school day.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at kclark@miamherald.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark

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