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Florida Lawmakers Inching Toward Mandating Moment Of Silence In Public Schools

Steve Cannon
AP Photo

Sponsors of a bill that puts a moment of silence at the top of each day in Florida’s public schools say it’s about mitigating stress in a hectic world. The bill is cruising through both chambers, but some are warning that it’s rooted in Judeo-Christian values.  

“Recent research proves that few people are able to experience even a moment of quiet reflection before plunging into daily life activities,” said House sponsor, Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Kimberly Daniels, who saw her bill pass the House PreK-12 Appropriations panel Monday.

Daniels wants Florida to join the 13 other states that have legislated a moment of silence into the school day.

“Our students would be served well, during this moment of silence, to collect themselves for the day ahead, to make a mental or emotional transition from a hectic situation before school is starting,” Daniels said.

The bill has been sailing through the House. In the Senate, it awaits its final committee stop. It’s being carried by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley.

“So it’s really to protect – the students’ rights, if they have different beliefs, or if they have no beliefs, then it’s up to them and their parents what the content of a moment of reflection is,” Baxley told his colleagues, amid questions about his bill being of a religious nature.

The bill says teachers “shall” encourage parents to talk with their kids about what that silent moment means to them. Current statute permits what’s called a “brief meditation period,” which would be replaced by a required moment of silence should the measure get signed into law.

Democratic Senator Lori Berman says what’s on the books is good enough, giving school districts flexibility.

“I’m not sure why we need to actually mandate it,” Berman said. “Right now the districts can do it, it’s up to them. So, I’m not going to be able to support the bill today.”

Some proponents like the bill because it would mandate the moment of silence, not allowing schools to opt out. Others fear the measure would lead to discrimination of students not in Judeo-Christian religions.

Devon Graham, with the group American Atheists, has spoken against the bill in both chambers.

“I’m concerned for those students who choose not to participate with what might not be considered a typical response. Especially considering the Judeo-Christian roots of this bill,” Graham told the House panel this week.

“While sponsors assure us that nothing will happen to those kids during those one to two minutes, I fear for the retribution that will happen when the silence is over,” Graham said. “So I can only hope, when a student chooses not to bow their heads or close their eyes, who brings the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita into class to read, or chooses to pore over the Litanies of Satan, or performs a silent satanic ritual at their desk, that their First Amendment rights would be acknowledged.”

Baxley has been working on the bill with Rabbi Schneur Oirechman of Tallahassee’s Chabad Lubavich. Oirechman says he’s behind the bill on behalf of more than 200 Chabad centers throughout Florida.

“There’s no better place than the schools – unfortunately schools are faced with a lot of darkness as well – to bring some light into the life of the children, and to teach them with this moment of silence, to think about other people, to think about the world, think about making this world a better place,” Oirechman told WFSU.

Oirechman says indeed students can think about God or religion during their moment of silence – but they have the freedom to contemplate anything they want.

“The idea is that the parents tell the children – ‘Okay, you start the day, you think about God, think about how you can make the world a better place.’ This bill takes away the rights from the teachers or the principals to tell them what they think about,” Oirechman said. “So a person who wants to think about nothing, can think about nothing – it’s a moment of silence. It doesn’t tell you what the silence is for, and particularly, that’s the language of the bill – to make it very inclusive.”

If it’s successful, the measure would go into effect in July of this year.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.