With permission from their school boards, a bill passed this session would give students the option of asking to lead prayer or deliver an inspirational message during school events. But, Regan McCarthy reports the proposal is expected to face legal challenges.
Harold Brockus worked as a Protestant minister in Pinellas County for 32 years and says he’s active in his church still today. He’s also the president of his county’s chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. And he says his group is already considering filing a lawsuit against the measure.
“Students can now pray in school. We haven’t taken prayer out of school. What we’ve done is taken school out of prayer.”
Brockus joined a group including a Rabbi and a Baptist Minister in writing a letter to Florida Governor Rick Scott asking him to veto the legislation. In the letter they say says religion shouldn’t be forced on kids at school and certainly shouldn’t be used to make minorities feel like outsiders.
“And by the way the separation of church and state is an American creation. It’s like Jazz. And it’s one of the jewels in our crown. And although its not always been observed, I hate to see it taken away from us.”
Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff talked about that “outsider” feeling Brockus is describing during a debate on the measure earlier this regular session.
“I spent most of my life actually suppressing or hiding my religion just simply because it made me uncomfortable to be public about it because I wasn’t brought up in a community that was accepting of the Jewish faith.”
But Bogdanoff did vote for the proposal when it came to the Senate floor. The measure, which applies to students in Kindergarten through 12th grade who go to public school, leaves it up to students to decide whether to deliver an “inspirational message,” and what the content of that message should be. Senator Gary Siplin is the bill’s sponsor. He says “inspirational message” can mean a number of things.
“It is a part of prayer. Inspiration messages can be the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by MLK because it inspires blacks and white we need to work together. Don’t judge me by the color or my skin, but by the content of my character. And it can also mean when I sneeze you say God bless you or when we have a lunch we say we bless this food. All those are part of inspirational messages and of course prayer is a part of inspiration messages too.”
Siplin goes on to point out school boards that do decide to implement the policy won’t have to be concerned about lawsuits from organizations like Minister Brockus’s.
“This bill has been supported by the all the best legal minds. It is constitutional. And there is a statute that would allow the school boards to get attorneys fees, once these opponents file lawsuits, they will lose because it is a frivolous lawsuit, and the school boards will be able to get their attorney fees returned to them.”
Siplin says the measure encourages students to hear prayers and messages from other views. And he says that would help to teach students about other beliefs and about tolerance as well as morality
“If we teach a kid how to read, write and arithmetic, which is a part of the learning process and becoming a whole person, we ought to also teach them about morality and inspiration.”
On the other hand, Minister Brockus says he finds the idea of using prayer, which he says is about communicating with God, as a teaching tool, marginalizes the very thing it seeks to uphold.