A Florida House Judiciary Committee approved on Wednesday a bill that would allow students from K-12 to deliver inspirational messages including prayers during school events, with sole discretion given to students.
Administrators would not be allowed to monitor or participate in the delivery or creation of the messages authorized by CS/SB 98, giving individual school districts no opportunity to review the content.
The Judiciary Committee engaged in a lengthy debate before deciding to pass the bill Wednesday morning due to what some consider vague language, which could potentially cause confusion and invite lawsuits for school boards that adopt the non-mandatory bill, opponents argued.
Some members of the committee particularly found fault with the phrase "inspirational messages," which did not specify the kinds of speeches that could be delivered to fellow students.
For example, if prayer was qualified to be an inspirational message (the word "prayer" was not explicitly mentioned in the bill), it could perhaps open up the schools to costly litigation.
The original bill, sponsored by Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando), asked that school boards be allowed to authorize student-led prayers of "invocation or benediction" at secondary school events.
But further amendments by the Senate changed the prayers of invocation or benediction to "inspirational messages" instead, and also allowed the student-led messages to be delivered at all events, including mandatory school assemblies.
Committee members in favor of the bill on Wednesday, hoping to push aside the concerns, stated that because the word "prayer" was not included in the one-page bill, litigation would not be a problem, the Florida Independent reported.
State Rep. Charles Van Zant (R-Palatka) stressed that this was not a school prayer act but a "freedom of speech" bill.
He clarified that before the Senate passed the bill earlier this month, state House and Senate attorneys amended the language to make sure future lawsuits would not occur.
But opponents of the bill who were mostly Democrats believed that the bill was really a school prayer bill in disguise and that the new wording was just a way to get the measure passed.
State Rep. Richard Steinberg (D-Miami Beach) also stressed that the bill could hurt minorities as well, a previous concern highlighted by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union which felt that some students could be made to feel like outsiders or alienated from their peers.
Other representatives also pointed out the protest from groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Florida Family Policy Council and Liberty Counsel. The latter two, however, are now endorsing the bill.
"I opposed the original Senate bill, because it allowed only non-sectarian and non-proselytizing messages, which means it required the state to censor student speech," said Mathew Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, according to Palm Beach Post. "I believe students have the right to free speech. I support the amended version that removed the censorship language and which allows students to deliver a message of their choice."
Baylor Johnson, the Online Advocacy coordinator for the ACLU of Florida, argued earlier that "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."
"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.
The bill, if passed, will be effective as of July 1, 2012. It is currently headed for a final vote in the Florida House.
Calls to Senator Gary Siplin were not immediately returned to The Christian Post when seeking commentary.