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Florida Enacts Legislation Protecting Private Prayer in Schools

Peter J. Smith : Jun 10, 2010 :

…the law would protect students "who want to thank God in a commencement speech" or bow their heads in silent prayer "without fear of being questioned or stopped."

(Tallahassee, Florida)—Florida has enacted a new law protecting the rights of individuals at public schools to engage freely in prayer and other religious expression. Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill on Friday, which had been passed by the legislature in May.

Santa Rosa School Distr.The bill (HB 31) originated as a response to a controversy surrounding the Santa Rosa County School District, which had been pressured by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to adopt a policy that forbade all school personnel from engaging in non-official school-related religious activities.

"Our First Amendment rights, granted to us by the U.S. Constitution are absolute, and this law ensures that they remain that way," said Rep. Greg Evers in a statement provided to local Florida online journal, Evers said the law would protect students "who want to thank God in a commencement speech" or bow their heads in silent prayer "without fear of being questioned or stopped."

The law states that district school boards and their employees are prohibited from taking proactive measures, including making agreements, that infringe or waive "the rights or freedoms afforded to instructional personnel, school staff, or students by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution." It says that written consent from "the individual whose constitutional rights would be impacted" would be necessary before such steps could be taken.

The version of the bill signed into law by Gov. Crist will prevent school officials from interfering in the religious expression of students and school employees at events. However, it would not authorize official, organized school prayer, religious expression, or recognition of God at events such as sports events and student assemblies.

The original version of the law sought by the state House of Representatives actually would have empowered public schools to permit "delivery of an inspirational message, including a prayer or an invocation, at a noncompulsory high school activity" if a majority of students had requested it. Students also then would have selected a representative to deliver the message.

Nonetheless, the new law will prevent situations like that in the Santa Rosa County school district, where school officials caved to ACLU pressure and signed onto a Consent Decree in 2008 which prohibited religious expression, such as voluntary, student-initiated prayers or off-the-clock religious discussion among adults.

Some public school staff in the district testified in an ongoing lawsuit that the Consent Decree has proved so draconian that among other things they practically have to hide in closets to pray and have been forbidden to participate freely in private, off-campus baccalaureate services. The court testimony also stated that under the agreement reached with the ACLU teachers could not reply to emails from parents containing the words "God bless" or other religious language, and that staff have to censor private, after-school groups from engaging in religious expression or prayer.

Three staff members were charged with violating the Consent Decree, but later found not guilty. Pace High School Principal Frank Lay faced contempt charges for asking Athletic Director Robert Freeman, also charged with contempt, to bless a meal during a dinner held at the high school. Both men faced up to $5,000 in fines, six months in jail, and the possible loss of their retirement benefits.

Local Fox 10 reports that Lay has now retired as principal from Pace High School, ending a thirty-five year career with the school district.

School teacher Michelle Winkler was similarly charged, because her husband, who is not a school board employee, offered a prayer, written by Winkler, at a private awards ceremony honoring non-instructional employees of the district. The charges were later dropped.

School officials also torpedoed a thirty-year tradition of having the student body president address fellow students at Pace High School, because Pace student president for the 2008-2009 school year, Mary Allen, included in her speech a reference thanking God for her success and made other references to God.

The public advocacy group Liberty Counsel is currently litigating against the ACLU and the District to overturn the Consent Decree, and plans to ask the court responsible for the decree to reconsider its enforcement in light of the new law.

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