School prayer fix wins broad support from panel
By Kathleen Haughney
The News Service of Florida
A once controversial school prayer bill won unanimous support from a House panel after a tweak to the legislation severely blunted its reach.
“This bill is now a protection of school speech,” said Rep. Greg Evers (R-Baker), a co-sponsor of the legislation.
An earlier version of the bill had barred district school boards from discouraging the delivery of an “inspirational message” at a school sponsored activity. The language spurred outcry from the Anti-Defamation League and other groups who said Jewish students or members of other minority religions might feel uncomfortable if surrounded by largely Christian students who organized prayers at school events.
But an amendment to the legislation crossed out half of the bill that dealt with an “inspirational message,” and simply leaving the second part of the bill, which says schools are prohibited from entering any agreement that infringes or waives the rights or freedoms afforded to instructional personnel, school staff, or students by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Anti-Defamation League officials put out a statement saying the amendment eliminated their concerns with the bill and that they would be dropping their opposition to the measure.
“Throughout its advocacy against HB 31, the Anti-Defamation League’s primary concern has been the first paragraph of the bill which would have authorized sectarian prayers, invocations, or other inspirational messages by students at so-called noncompulsory high-school activities,” the statement said. “Under the compromise passed by the Policy Council, this portion of the bill was deleted. As such, ADL will discontinue its opposition to HB 31 and we urge our constituents to do the same.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is still in opposition to the bill, and ACLU lobbyist Courtenay Strickland told lawmakers that the measure, if passed, could bankrupt school boards with litigation costs because of different legal interpretations of the bill.
“There could be huge costs involved with this legislation,” she told lawmakers.