The Florida Senate passed a bill on Wednesday allowing student-led prayer or other inspirational messages at public school events, drawing mixed reaction from residents.
Sponsored by Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando), the legislation known as CS/SB 98 will permit individual school boards to adopt a policy allowing students to deliver "inspirational messages" at functions like assemblies, with sole discretion given to the students.
Administrators are not allowed to monitor or participate in the delivery or the creation of the messages, giving school districts no opportunity to review the content.
Many in the public were against the measure not only for its vague use of the word "inspirational," which was left undefined, but because they believed it went against the separation of church and state.
"We believe the measure is unfair, coercive, divisive and unconstitutional," Alan Isaacs, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte counties, told news-press.com. "It's a personal decision and should remain private."
"Religion belongs in the home and religious institutions, churches, mosques and temples. I don't see any reason that justifies bringing it into public schools. If kids want to learn about other religions, there are parochial schools."
Siplin's original bill previously asked that school boards be allowed to authorize student-led prayers of "invocation or benediction at only secondary school events" like dances or during extracurricular activities.
However, further amendments by the Senate changed the prayers of invocation or benediction to "inspirational messages" instead, while also permitting speakers to share at all events to all grades.
The main sponsor previously said of the bill, "The majority of states already have laws enacted that permit prayer or silent meditation – and in some instances, mandate prayer or silent meditation. I simply want to empower our school districts to allow students to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion in the school setting."
The bill passed 31-8 on Wednesday after more than an hour of debate in the Senate, with disapproval from senators like Audrey Gibson, Arthenia Joyner, and Gwen Margolis.
All of the bill's opponents who voted no were Democrats. The legislation heads to the Florida House next for approval.
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union are also in protest of the bill, foreseeing many lawsuits in the future for all participating school boards that adopt the policies outlined in CS/SB 98.
"SB 98 attempts to grant school officials the power to skirt the Constitutional protections of religious liberty by allowing students to actually vote on what kind of prayers the school will allow and conduct," Baylor Johnson, the Online Advocacy coordinator for the ACLU of Florida quoted to The Christian Post.
"This legislation could give schools free reign to make students feel like outsiders in the classroom, alienated from their peers, or compelled by peer pressure to engage in religious practices that go against their own beliefs."
Religious expression is an individual liberty and shouldn't be put to a vote like a Prom King or Homecoming Court, Johnson added.
"When that happens, religious freedom is eroded."
Siplin has expressed that he was not forcing anyone to adopt the bill, according to the Tallahassee Bureau. "If the school board doesn't adopt it, it has no application."
When contacted by The Christian Post for additional commentary, calls and emails were not immediately returned by the Baptist senator.