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Student-Led School Prayer Bill Advances in Senate

January 23, 2012 - 6:00pm

A bill to allow public secondary school students to run their own prayer sessions at organized events has now received its third Senate committee backing.

The American Civil Liberties Union said a lawsuit should be expected.

The bill, SB 98, supported Monday by the Senate Rules Committee, would allow school districts to adopt resolutions that let students use inspirational messages, without backing or influence from the district or district employees, at school-sanctioned exercise or assemblies.

Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who has sponsored the bill for the past two years, said the proposal allows school districts to decide if they will allow students to hold their own inspirational messages at events that students are not required to attend.

This bill is not intended to advance any religion, religious belief, but rather to provide for the solemnization or moralization of secondary school events and ceremonies, Siplin said.

Pamela Birch Forte, speaking for the ACLU, said government cant simply transfer the prohibition against organized prayer to any other entities as the bill would give responsibility for the message being given to the student government.

By passing this decision, the bill simply invites those school boards to be sued when they get this wrong, Forte said. And when local school boards are sued because of this bill, and they will be, taxpayers end up paying the bill.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Oakland Park, who along with Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, voted against the bill, said even if the intent is not to support one belief over another, he can understand how such a prayer session can make some students uncomfortable.

He noted that he often waits outside the Senate chamber when the opening invocation is given.

Im uncomfortable with the opening prayer, every day; Im uncomfortable that we start with different pastors ... I dont know anything about their background, what theyre advocating or stuff. Im uncomfortable with that every day, and thats done every day in this chamber, and I'm grown, said Smith, who is a member of the New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale.

So I have concerns with making students who are not grown like me, who maybe dont have the ability to stay in the back of the chamber, to be subject to prayer, he added.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, said the bill should have been strong as prayer helps students, since there was a time when students prayed in schools and the rascals were really nice.

I cant understand why there is such a problem with inspirational messages, Bullard said.

Sen. Evelyn J. Lynn, R-Daytona, said the bill doesnt force any student to pray.

This is a very weak bill. Its at secondary level, so students have the ability to think for themselves clearly, this is an inspirational message and its a noncompulsory event, Lynn said. No one has to go and if they dont want to hear the inspirational message they can go after that inspirational message or come in late. I cant believe that anyone would be against this bill at a time when our nation needs all the help it can get. And if it comes from above, I think that is great.

The bill has received the backing of the Education Pre-K-12 and Judiciary committees.

The House companion bill, HB 317, sponsored by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, has yet to go before a committee.

Reach Jim Turner at or at (772) 215-9889.

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