Florida 'Inspirational Message' Bill Goes to Scott

By: Mike Vasilinda; Associated Press; Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida Email
By: Mike Vasilinda; Associated Press; Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida Email

The bill (SB 98) passed the committee on a party-line, 9-6 vote, with Republicans arguing the measure would boost freedom of religion and speech while Democrats said it could become a vehicle for divisive messages and hate speech.

Inspirational Messages in Schools on Way to Governor
by Mike Vasilinda

Tallahassee, FL -- March 1, 2012

Legislation allowing student leaders to deliver an “inspirational message” at school functions is on its way to the Governor after more than hour of impassioned debate. Supporters say it is not a school prayer bill, but opponents argued inspirational message is just code for prayer.

Children in the first grade, and every other grade, could soon start receiving inspirational messages from classmates. The Legislation sets no age limit on who can give an inspiration message. It says only that school personnel can’t be involved. Representative Dennis Baxley cast the issue this way.

“Liberate these children and let them learn about real freedom. This is about freedom.

The legislation sparked more than an hour of heated debate.

“There must be controls” said Jewish representative Franklin Sands of Broward County. “And the kindergarten children, we’re saying give them absolute rights. They can make any message they want. Are you kidding?” asked Sands.

But some African Americans, including Representative Hazell Rogers, crossed party lines to support the messages. She explained her decision this way: “The majority of people in my district believe that we are having problems with our students because we took prayer out of the classroom.”

“88 yeas, 27 nays Mister Speaker.”

That vote sends the legislation to the Governor

Under the legislation, every school district will get a chance to set its own policies, but lawmakers turned down an attempt to make those schools responsible for any legal fees that might result. Once signed, lawsuits are a foregone conclusion said Ronald Bilbao of the ACLU. “And we know that it violates the establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution. We feel it’s an open invitation to litigation.”

And with the Governor’s okay, the messages could begin as early as next school year.

Governor Rick Scott says he has not read the legislation, but he believes in prayer in school.

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Florida 'Inspirational Message' Bill Goes to Scott

Tallahassee, FL (AP) -- March 1, 2012 --

A bill allowing school boards to permit student-initiated prayer and other "inspirational messages" at public school assemblies is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott.

The House passed the measure (SB 98) on a largely party line roll call of 88-27 Thursday, with Republicans for and most but not all Democrats against. It previously passed the Senate 31-8.

Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat who sponsored the bill, says it keeps students rather than administrators in charge of whether and how to deliver messages of inspiration.

Opponents say it violates the constitutional principle of church-state separation and will almost certainly be challenged in court.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions have banned state-sponsored prayer in public schools.

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'Inspirational Message' Bill Passes House Panel

Tallahassee, FL -- February 13, 2012 --

A controversial measure allowing students to deliver "inspirational messages" at public school events passed the House Education Committee on Monday, leaving it one stop away from what could be the final vote on the House floor.

The bill (SB 98) passed the committee on a party-line, 9-6 vote, with Republicans arguing the measure would boost freedom of religion and speech while Democrats said it could become a vehicle for divisive messages and hate speech.

The measure -- sponsored in the House by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights -- does not specifically reference prayer at school events, but would allow that as a kind of inspirational message, along with just about anything else. Adults would have no say over what could be said by students under the bill.

Van Zant acknowledged it would allow any type of speech but admitted it was aimed, in part, at protecting students who want to give a prayer and have felt they've been unable to do so publicly.

"When we took school prayer ... out of school, it's clearly documented that school discipline - disciplinary cases went up, that we had a lot more school vandalism, that we had a lot more disrespect for schools, including the physical plant as well as school personnel, teachers and principals," Van Zant said.

Still, he said, the primary reason for the legislation was to allow students to exercise their free-speech rights.

But critics argued the measure would instead leave students as young as kindergartners in charge of what is inspirational, since teachers are not allowed to have a roll in preparing or delivering the message.

"What inspires me may not inspire you," said Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

Bullard and other Democratic members said that there was nothing to prevent a student from presenting a racially-charged inspirational message, even one that contained racial slurs. Bullard grew emotional as he recounted his own experience when a schoolmate called him a racial slur when he was in elementary school.

"What this bill does is open up the possibility of messages of hate," he said. "Whether you like to believe it or not, hate is inspirational."

Republicans argued that allowing students to air views that others find offensive in an open forum might actually prove beneficial.

"It is better that some young man or woman espouses those views in public so the issues can be properly debated," said Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness.

But Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, said she wasn't convinced it would spark a healthy debate.
"It may start a fight," she said.

Other groups, meanwhile, were worried that the danger lies in the potential for infringing on the rights of other students, who would be forced to listen to prayers or messages they don't agree with.

"What would happen in your school district if the prayer was to Allah, to Buddha, to HaShem -- which is how we say 'God' in Judaism -- or another faith in which children were not brought up?" asked David Barkey of the Anti-Defamation League of Florida.

Republicans countered that not allowing students to voice their beliefs itself amounted to a form of discrimination.

"That tolerance goes both ways," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.

The measure now heads to the House Judiciary Committee. If it clears that panel and the House floor without an amendment, it would go to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.


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