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Siplin's school prayer bill gets Senate OK

The Florida Senate recently approved a bill that would allow students to lead prayer at any school assembly without any monitoring from teachers and school administrators. But, As Sascha Cordner reports, though it received widespread support among Republicans, Senate Democrats say the legislation is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Commonly referred to as the “School prayer bill,” Senate Bill 98 authorizes, but does not require, a school board to adopt policies that allow inspirational messages to be given by students at a student assembly.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Senator Gary Siplin of Orlando says if a local school board gives the go-ahead, it would be up to a student to decide whether to give a prayer on school grounds, without any interference:

“Which means that whenever a student wants to have an inspirational message, it has to be by the student itself. Not a parent, not a teacher, not a coach, not an administrator, not a counselor, not a principal, not even a school board member, complete control by the student.”

But, Siplin had problems swaying his fellow Democrats to see the merits of his bill, like Senator Gwen Margolis of Miami.

“I must tell you that I deeply believe in prayer. I certainly encourage everyone to pray in their own way to themselves in a public place, but I do not think that it’s appropriate that allows for prayer openly in our schools.”

Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood says if this bill becomes law, it would cause other students who don’t hold the same religious beliefs to be alienated, and could very well lead to a lawsuit.

“We want our public school students to get along and work together. This bill will lead to a less cohesive student body, not to mention the court challenges that will be pursued to defend our constitution that strongly opposes the establishment of religion in our bill of rights. In the end, you will find that this bill is unconstitutional.”

The bill originally called for student-led prayer to take place at optional high school assemblies.

But, it now allows students to say inspirational messages, which could include prayer, at any student assemblies for grades k through 12. Democratic Senator Maria Sachs says opening up the bill to include elementary school students was the last straw for her:

To allow a school board, which is a government entity, not a group of families or a group of parents and teachers together along with religious personnel, this is a government agency that will mandate the type of prayer or inspirational message that will be handed out to little children to me crosses the line.”

Senator Siplin’s bill received staunch support from Republicans, including Senator Joe Negron of Stuart. He says currently, the state values things like, political and economic beliefs. But, religious expression always takes a backseat, which Negron says this bill addresses.

“And, that if someone wants to get up and talk about a secular point of view, well that’s fine, we’ll listen. But, if someone wants to get up and say the life and work of Martin Luther King, Junior as inspired me, and I’d like to read a prayer that he wrote. No you can’t do that! You’re a second class [citizen]. We’re not going to discuss it. This bill doesn’t even talk about that, it’s about religious expression.”

Senate President Designate Don Gaetz also supports the bill. But, he warns it may not always be a Christian or Jewish prayer.

"At a graduation ceremony a student might stand up and say I give my thanks to Allah, and let me explain why. A student might stand up and say I'm a Wiccan and let me explain why. We have to be prepared for the full expression of religion and I am."

The bill passed 31 to 8 along an almost party line vote, with Republicans in favor and all Democrats, except Siplin opposed. The bill’s House companion sponsored by Republican Representative Charles Van Zant is stalled in the House.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.