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Friday, April 15, 2011

Prayer in schools is one thing, forcing students to pray is another


School districts would be authorized to allow students to pray at public high school and middle school events under legislation approved Thursday by the state Senate Education Committee.

The same committee also approved another measure creating a version of Gov. Rick Scott's proposed Education Savings Accounts, or universal school vouchers.

It's questionable whether either measure will become law; both bills have companion bills in the House of Representatives that have yet to be scheduled for committee hearings.

Under the school prayer bill, whether to pray would be up to the student government and the nonsectarian prayer would be delivered only by students, who would not be allowed to proselytize. The American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully sued the Santa Rosa School District over school prayers in 2008, opposes the bill, as does the Anti Defamation League.

ADL attorney David Barkey said his organization champions religious freedom, but thinks the measure sponsored by Sen. Gary Siplin is unconstitutional and sets up school districts for litigation because it crosses the line between allowing private prayer and having districts control the message.

"We have no doubt that Sen. Siplin's bill is well-intended, but we think it's unnecessary; it's going to be divisive and it's going to be costly to school districts."

Siplin, D-Orlando, told committee members the bill is similar to laws in 36 other states, including Virginia, which he said has a law requiring a moment of silence in schools. "We have an obligation to allow our children to voluntarily participate in invocation and benediction," he said.

A staff analysis prepared for the Senate Education Committee said it's difficult to know how this bill would be implemented, and that some scenarios could pose constitutional problems.

The Education Savings Account bill would allow parents of public school children to opt to remove a child from public schools and receive vouchers for 40 percent of the state's per-student expenditure.

That money could be used for approved education expenses. Public school districts would receive 20 percent of the per-student expenditure. The rest of the money would go to children who are already in private school and would be on a waiting list to receive the voucher money.

"This is a very innovative program," said bill sponsor Joe Negron, R-Palm City. "It recognizes that parents should have choice."

Critics maintain that the plan would deprive public schools of needed funds and diminish the quality of public education.>+Politics)&utm_content=Google+Reader

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