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School prayer back before lawmakers in 2012

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Sen. Gary Siplin (D) Orlando

By Regan McCarthy

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-993312.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – For the second year in a row, lawmakers are pushing legislation that would give school districts the option of allowing student led prayer at certain school events. The prayer is meant to be non-denominational, but Regan McCarthy reports some worry a specific religious message will seep into the invocation regardless.

Senator Gary Siplin is sponsoring the bill. The legislation is clear in requiring that once the school board gives the okay, students would have to be the ones to decide to hold a prayer, what the prayer would be and which student volunteer would deliver it. Even so, some, like Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff worry that the majority of students would select a prayer slanted in a direction that would make students of minority religions uncomfortable.

"Inspirational messages are a good thing for our students and I'd like to see more of it, but I can't support anything that I believe probably will end up, not endorsing, but prayer being skewed toward one religion or the other."

Bogdanoff, a Republican from Fort Lauderdale, says she supported the bill until it was amended to no longer specify that the prayer must be non-sectarian. She says she remembers feeling uncomfortable about her own religion as a young person.

"I spent most of my life 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 very accepting of people of the Jewish faith."

Bogdanoff says she doesn't want any other young people in Florida's schools to experience that discomfort. David Barkey is the Anti-Defamation League's Religious Freedom Council. He says this bill crosses the line from private school prayer, which is already okayed, to public school sanctioned or state sponsored prayer.

"I'm a person of faith. I'm a person of the Jewish faith and I have a young daughter in public school and when she goes to secondary school or another other child goes to secondary school, why should they be made to feel excluded or ostracized or excluded or unwelcome at a football game, at a graduation ceremony, at a dance, at a play because of their faith. Or why should a student have to choose between attending a school activity or his or her religious beliefs?"

But Barkey says to really understand the concerns being raised, it's something people in the majority should consider from the other side of the issue.

"What if a student, let's say at graduation gave a prayer or an inspirational message in the name of Adonai, which is how we say God in Judaism or Allah, or Buddha, or in any other faith in which they were not brought up. Or what if a student who is an ethical humanist got up during graduation and gave an inspiration message saying, well, God may not exist, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't follow the golden rule to treat everybody as we would like to be treated?"

Senator Bill Montford, a Democrat from Apalachicola, says he thinks that wouldn't be such a bad idea.

"I think that we need to bring our young people into the world, taking our place, where they have been exposed to as many different views, regardless of whether it's religion or whatever as we can."

Montford, who works in the education field, says he'd like to see the bill be used as an opportunity to teach about varying views. He says his hope is that it would help young people growing up to learn to be more tolerant than he feels many people in his generation are. Similarly Senator Bullard who was a teacher herself for a number of years agrees that the bill could serve as an important learning opportunity in school. Bullard says she's proud to say she's a Christian and was forced to stand up for those beliefs in college, but she says that taught her a valuable lesson. Bullard says she wants students to stand up for what they believe in no matter what that is.

"I don't have a problem if you believe in a shoe and want to pray to a shoe. If you believe that you want to get down on your knees or stand up and say that this shoe, I believe in I have no problem with that."

Bullard says prayers in school should simply be done "in his name" with no specific god mentioned, just as she says she thinks it should be done in the legislature. The bill passed out of the Senate Pre K-12 education committee with a 4 to 1 vote. Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff voted it down.