gary_siplin_web.jpgGULF BREEZE (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.”

(The Miami Herald reported on March 1 that Miami-Dade lawmakers in favor of the measure include Reps. Daphne Campbell and Cynthia Stafford, both Democrats of Miami, and Miami-Dade School Board member Wilber “Tee” Holloway.”)

Opponents say the unstated goal of the bill, which passed the House 88-27 with bipartisan support, 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 may not 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 Davie. “It is certainly an attempt to get around the ban on prayer 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 schools 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 is unlikely the bill would stand up 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.

Photo: Gary Siplin