Florida Gov. Rick Scott last week signed into law Senate Bill 436: the "Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act." The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been strongly opposed to it, issuing three action alerts to its members when the legislation was pending and helping its Florida chapter provide testimony before the Statehouse. The new law is the latest of a crop purporting to do something already done by the U.S. and Florida Constitutions: protect the freedom of religion.
The U.S. Constitution protects a student's right to privately pray — and the student's right to be free from school-organized and school-imposed prayer. As the old saw goes, so long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in schools.
SB 436 goes in a disturbing direction, however, by requiring public schools to create a "forum" at all events where students speak, such as graduation ceremonies. The law encourages student speakers to pray and express their personal religious beliefs at these events. If a student does not want to be indoctrinated in another student's religion, it suggests the person "be excused" from the event. This would essentially force minority religious and nonreligious students and their families to choose between attending graduation and publicly avoiding a religious ritual with which they disagree. The Supreme Court's Weisman decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, has firmly vetoed such a "choice," ruling graduation prayers unconstitutional.
The law also encourages teachers to participate "in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students." Staff participation in student religious expression violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and, in many circumstances, the federal Equal Access Act, which limits staff participation in student-run clubs to a nonparticipatory supervisory role. The new legislation will invite avoidable lawsuits, costing taxpayers and school districts dearly.
The primary sponsor of the House version, state Rep. Kimberly Daniels, has given the game away, penning a longwinded comment on her Facebook page that tries to justify the law but instead fully admits its religious purpose. She claims that "young children were not allowed to pray over their meals" in public schools, a common and thoroughly debunked persecution myth. She is also horrified that a coach was not allowed to pray with his players, something that federal courts have held the U.S. Constitution requires and which this law does nothing to change.
The new law does nothing but muddy the waters. Coaches and school staff will feel emboldened not only to illegally participate in their students' prayers but also to organize those prayers. Florida is already one of the worst offending states when it comes to state-church separation. FFRF has sent 125 letters to the state since the beginning of 2016 — about half of these to public schools that already have enough trouble keeping state and church separate.
SB 436 isn't about religious freedom; it's about imposing religion on children and bullying children of minority or no religion. It is going to get several school districts hauled into federal court. When they turn to the law for support, they'll find that state rules can't trump the federal Constitution. They'll lose — and deservedly so.
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