Conservative lawmakers in Florida are in the final stages of passing two bills that detractors say amount to nothing more than thinly veiled racism and xenophobia. But both proposals have undergone extensive reimagining before finally making it to the House floor.
After years of trying, Republican lawmakers led by Umatilla Sen. Alan Hays are close to sending two bills dealing with local and state oversight and control to the governor’s desk. One codifies existing case law that U.S. and Florida law supersedes foreign practices, while the other makes local school boards solely responsible for selecting textbooks. Both bills, however, stem from less-than-legitimate fears of Islamic influence.
The textbook controversy started last year when a group of parents in Volusia County, led by Deltona High School mom Valerie Velez, took to the streets to protest the inclusion of a single chapter devoted to Islam in a high school world history book. Although the text contained innumerable references to Christianity and Judaism within it’s more than one thousand pages, Velez attracted the attention of Senator Hays, who along with his House Sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach), filed legislation to in their words “ensure parents have a say in what is taught to their children”.
“The bill also requires local school districts to establish an appeals process and the bill makes it clear that all responsibility for selection of instructional materials, whether from the state list or through another system that the school district develops, is entirely the responsibility of the school district,” Gaetz described Monday.
Even though the state will still have the final say, the bill strengthens an existing rule that exempts school boards from having to choose text books from a state-approved list if the board so wishes. The bill also mandates districts set up an appeals process that would allow parents to object to the materials chosen. But, opponents of the bill say it’s tantamount to censorship and that it would open the door for laypeople to make educational decisions while ignoring experts in the field. Hassan Shibly is the Executive Director of Florida’s Council on American Islamic Relations or CAIR.
“They basically want to delete Islamic history from world history textbooks, which is ridiculous because the Islamic Empire, which lasted about a thousand years, at one point ruled almost a third of the world. So, you really just cannot delete Islamic history from world textbooks,” Shibly said in a phone interview Monday.
The Muslim-American advocate argues the bill is just the latest in Senator Hays' long history of anti-Islamic activism and calls his foreign laws bill nothing more than a distraction. Lake Worth Democratic Senator Jeff Clemens asked Hays whether that measure is even necessary.
“I guess my question would be: does this solve the problem as you see it? Or are we going to be coming back here next year to do work on this bill?” Clemens questioned.
“It would be my full expectation that this would solve the problem, based on Senator Simmons’ representation of it to me,” Hays answered.
The Umatilla Republican has filed the bill in one form or another since 2010. Originally, it specifically referred to Islamic Sharia law, but there’s no mention of that in this year’s draft. Instead, it bans any foreign law or practice that conflicts with state or federal law from inclusion in the Florida judicial system, specifically when it comes to family law. Many legal experts say those protections are already in existing case law. Because of that, CAIR’s Hassan Shibly thinks the Hays bill is a waste of time.
“This anti-Muslim legislation which is really just bad for faith, bad for freedom and bad for Florida is really just something that legislators like Alan Hays, who don’t have solutions to the real problems Florida is facing, are investing in to distract from the real problems in our state that need to be addressed,” Shibly charged.
Both measures have passed the less conservative Senate chamber and are expected to easily pass through the House. Governor Scott hasn’t yet said explicitly whether he’d sign them but has signaled some support for the proposals. In the event that both measures become law, CAIR is prepared to take the fight from the Capitol to the courtroom.