The Florida Senate Committee on Education today passed Senate Bill 436 by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, Religious Expression in Public Schools. Senate President Joe Negron emphasized it Tuesday during his Opening Day speech as a bill he favors.
The legislation creates the “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act,” and specifies that a school district may not discriminate against a student, parent, or school personnel on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.
“Freedom of Religion is a central right protected by our Constitution,” said Negron, R-Stuart. “This legislation makes it clear that the State of Florida stands for religious liberty and will take the steps necessary to protect the free speech rights of public school students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.”
Senate Bill 436 authorizes students to express religious beliefs in written and oral assignments, free from discrimination. Students may also wear clothing, accessories, and jewelry that display a religious message or symbol to the same extent secular types of clothing, accessories, and jewelry that display messages or symbols are permitted in public school dress codes. Further, students may pray, or engage in and organize religious activities before, during, and after the school day, to the same extent student engagement in secular activity or expression, and the organization of secular activities and groups are permitted.
“We should be encouraging, rather than preventing our students from expressing their religious convictions,” said Baxley. “This legislation safeguards Freedom of Religion by protecting our students from being discriminated against based on the free expression of their religious ideals in spoken word or prayer, attire, school assignments, and extracurricular activities.”
According to a statement released by the Senate Office, the legislation requires a school district to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and specifies that a school district may not prevent school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are student-initiated at reasonable times before or after the school day.
Districts must allow a religious group access to the same school facilities for assembling as a secular group without discrimination. Additionally, the bill requires school districts to adopt a policy that establishes a limited public forum for student speakers at any school event at which a student is to speak publicly. The legislation also requires the Florida Department of Education to develop and publish on its website a model policy regarding a limited public forum and the voluntary expression of religious viewpoints by students and school personnel in public schools. The model policy must be adopted and implemented by each district school board.