Sunday, November 4, 2012
All 67 districts pass on school prayer
From the Orlando Sentinel, By Kathleen Haughney, Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE - Last spring, conservative lawmakers railed against the lack of religion in public school and promised that if a school board wanted to set up rules allowing student-led school prayer, it could do it.
But fast forward a few months, and neither Broward nor Palm Beach County schools — or any other district in the state — has embraced the idea.
"None of them have tried to set the parameters," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida Association of School Boards, which serves as the collective voice of district school boards in Tallahassee. "We advised them against it. We told districts they'd be opening themselves up to litigation."
In March, lawmakers passed, and Gov. Rick Scottsubsequently signed, a measure that would allow local school districts to develop policies under which students could offer "inspirational" messages, including prayer, at school events. These could include even mandatory events, such as a school assembly.
The issue was about free speech, said Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, and Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, who sponsored the legislation. They argued that many schools wanted the pathway to set up school prayer in formal settings.
But so far, not a single school district has done anything to implement it.
The Clay County School Board — Van Zant's son is a member -- held a hearing about it, but nothing was put to a vote. Around the state, some school board members and candidates for elected superintendent have been asked about it on the campaign trail, but again, no movement.
Perhaps the most obvious reason why is the threat of a lawsuit.
Immediately after Scott signed the bill, the Boca Raton-based Anti Defamation League and the Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to all 67 county school districts guaranteeing a lawsuit if they even tried to move forward with such a plan.
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said he would be surprised if any school district adopts the procedures, which call for the "inspirational" message to be drawn up by students with no assistance from faculty or staff.
"If any school districts did, it would essentially be volunteering their time and resources to be a test case," he said.
The ACLU letter prompted Blanton to warn districts that they were indeed heading for a courtroom if they tried to implement a system for school prayer. Several Panhandle districts have seen school-prayer efforts thrown out by the courts in recent years.
The law already allows students to pray silently before a test or a game and allows individual groups to meet before or after school for a religious-centered extra-curricular activity.
State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who also serves as the executive director of the state Association of District School Superintendents, said that the group is planning a meeting in a few weeks for new superintendents who are elected this Tuesday. School prayer is on the agenda.
He said he expects that some may eventually choose to bring it up.
"Not only is it a sensitive issue, but it's also a very personal issue," said Montford, who voted for the law. "Not only with the school leadership and with the students, but with the parents."
Van Zant, who had proposed this law for several years before the Legislature passed it, spoke at length on the House floor this past spring about the need for religion in the classroom. In an interview, he said he wasn't surprised that school boards hadn't taken it up yet, noting that several boards have members up for re-election or open seats. Many superintendents are up for election as well.
He said he felt sure that by next spring, school boards in some areas would be talking about it.
He said the warnings from the ADL or ACLU shouldn't deter school board members or superintendents who are strong in their religious convictions.
"I think it just depends on whether you believe in prayer," he said. "If you didn't believe in prayer and got a letter like that, you'd probably pay attention. I'd probably just can it and bring it up to my board anyway."
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