Sideshow of social issues in Tallahassee

Published Mar. 5, 2012

It must be an election year, because the Florida Legislature has returned to the culture wars. The House in particular has spent time in recent days passing legislation regarding abortion restrictions, school prayer and other issues important to social conservatives. The emphasis may appeal to some voters, but it will not paper over the Legislature's larger failures to invest in higher education, protect the environment or provide social services.

The school prayer bill headed for Gov. Rick Scott's desk would let local school boards decide whether to allow students to give an "inspirational message" at student assemblies. The bill, SB 98, was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando but had the support of the Republican leadership. It would leave it to student volunteers of all ages, including in elementary school, to decide whether to give such a message and no teacher or principal could review its content.

Despite lawmakers' disingenuous protests to the contrary, this is a transparent effort to bypass constitutional limits on organized prayer in public school. Why else would legislators go to such lengths to give third-graders the ability to say anything inspirational they want at a mandatory school assembly, with no adult guidance or oversight? The prayers that do result will inevitably reflect the majority's religious beliefs, making students who don't share that faith feel uncomfortable and proselytized.

An equally disturbing bill related to abortion passed the House on Thursday largely along party lines. The bill, HB 277, would impose a 24-hour waiting period on women seeking abortions and require new clinics to be owned by physicians — a provision aimed at hurting Planned Parenthood. As Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, indicated during the heated debate, the provision is pure harassment. Pafford noted that the governor isn't a physician and yet he "has owned numerous hospitals." It appeared on Monday that the Senate will not hear the bill before Friday's scheduled adjournment, and that would be just fine.

Another bill with a solution in search of a problem is HB 1209, which would bar Florida courts from using religious or foreign law as part of a legal decision or contract. The impetus of the xenophobic measure that passed the House Thursday is a baseless worry that Florida courts will choose to follow Islamic code over secular law. Two Jewish lawmakers pointed out that the measure could interfere with divorces mediated through Jewish tribunals, among other problems.

Bills to erode church-state separation, interfere with a woman's right to an abortion and banish Islamic law may be politically popular with some conservative voters. But they do not reflect the daily concerns or mainstream values of most Floridians. The sooner the Legislature wraps up the state budget and adjourns, the better.