GULF BREEZE, Fla. (AP) _ “Pray for Our Schools,” many fading yard signs scattered throughout Santa Rosa County say, remnants of a bitter court battle over school prayer between conservative Christian groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.
That fight, which cost the Santa Rosa County School District at least $500,000 in attorney fees, ended with officials admitting high school administrators had been leading prayers and promoting Christianity in the school system.
It is part of the backdrop for a bill just passed by the Florida Legislature that would allow the state’s 67 school boards to adopt rules permitting the reading of student-initiated “inspirational messages” at assemblies and ceremonies.
Backers say the bill, introduced by Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, doesn’t use the word “prayer” and doesn’t favor any specific religion, but allows students to pick a speaker and message of their choosing. If the chosen student gives a prayer or cites a specific religion, that’s his or her right, proponents say. Republican Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill.
“The bill doesn’t force any message whatsoever,” Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, said in a recent committee hearing.
Eisnaugle said the bill is constitutional because it is “content neutral.”
“Even if the policy is adopted (by a school board,) it leaves the decision whether to deliver a message up to the students,” he said. “All the folks who’ve opposed this bill and who have expressed opposition to this bill seem to have a bias against prayer. They don’t like this bill because it allows potentially, if a student wants to give a prayer, it allows prayer.”
But opponents say the unstated goal is to allow Christian prayers at school events, which they say would violate the constitutional rights of non-Christian students. And they say the bill violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on the government endorsing specific religions in schools and will create additional lawsuits similar to the Santa Rosa County lawsuit that the school districts will lose at great cost to taxpayers.
The House rejected an amendment put forward by opponents that would have required the state to pay the legal fees for any district that allowed inspirational messages and was sued.
“This is an open invitation for 66 more Santa Rosa Counties,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
Until the early 1960s, state-sponsored, adult-led prayer was common in public schools nationwide. But then the U.S. Supreme Court said such prayers violated the First Amendment’s clause that says the government cannot establish an official religion or prohibit any religion’s free exercise. In the five decades since, there have been numerous court fights over what constitutes school prayer, when it’s legal and where the line is drawn.
“There is no question there will be lawsuits over this,” said Bob Jarvis, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “It is certainly an attempt to get around the ban on prayer on in school, no one can question that. I think, in the end, no school district will carry it out for fear that they might get sued.”
The legislation appears to be more of a political offering than a legal one, he said.
The bill raises a lot of constitutional questions that would create headaches for school to manage, he said. Jarvis said it would be difficult for school districts to give equal time for every student to share an “inspirational message,” and it would be difficult for districts to control possible offensive content.
It unlikely the bill would standup to legal scrutiny, he said.
“I think it was one of those symbolic bills passed by very Republican legislators to throw red meat to their base and to toss up in November if the courts reject it,” Jarvis said.
The school-prayer fight came to Santa Rosa County in 2008 when the ACLU sued on behalf of two Pace High School students over student-led prayers that were given at graduation and other school events. The principal, who is a Baptist deacon, school administrators and teachers also led students in prayer and Bible readings.
The district settled the lawsuit by banning its officials from leading or promoting prayer at school events and by admitting a long-standing culture at Pace High of promoting Christianity.
The Liberty Counsel appealed the settlement on behalf of Christian Educators Association International saying the settlement went too far in restricting employee’s rights.
A federal court agreement ended the case by amending the original settlement to, among other things, clarify that teachers can say “thank heavens” or “God bless you” in the classroom.
Longtime Santa Rosa school board member JoAnn Simpson sees the decision by the Legislature not to cover districts’ attorney fees as a warning that districts that adopt the measure will be sued and could lose. Simpson said few issues have more power to divide communities than school prayer and the damage is long term.
“It’s wonderful for people to put signs in their yards that say “Pray for our Schools,” she said. “I’m a person of God. I pray, but I do not subject others to my beliefs. There is still animosity out there. There is still a lot of animosity about the lawsuits.”
Santa Rosa Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick had no comment about the bill. Other Santa Rosa school board members did not return emails or phone messages left by The Associated Press.
Opponents say the bill is about Christian prayer, regardless of the carefully-chosen terminology, and would likely lead to lawsuits for school districts that adopt the measure. Some question whether the term “inspirational message” will create problems because it is not specific. Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, wanted to know if a student reading aloud from the “Aryan Satanic Manifesto” could be considered an “inspirational message.”
But Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said disruptive speech could be controlled by the school.
The message would be delivered at a school assembly, Van Zant told his House colleagues, “where there’s some semblance of order, sometimes better than we have in this House.”
The Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian group, opposed an original version of the bill because of concerns about its constitutionality.
Council President John Stemberger said the bill had allowed “nonsectarian and non-proselytizing prayers and benedictions.” It would have been left to schools to determine what fit the criteria and could have opened them up to legal challenges.
He said the revised bill is about free speech and should stand up to legal scrutiny, he said.
“It appears the only limitation here is the term `inspiration.’ The districts are not picking the students or the message. These students are picked by fellow students. If a valedictorian wants to give glory to God or Allah or to themselves, it is their free-speech right,” he said.