Fla. Legislators Push To Turn Public Schools Into Mission Fields

Another year, another attempt to encourage proselytizing in public-school classrooms.

Last Thursday, the Florida Senate passed SB 436 by a vote of 23-13, almost entirely along party lines. A revised version in the House – HB 303 – will likely receive a floor vote in the House this week. Then the two chambers will duel it out over the two versions, or better yet, pass neither.

At first blush, it may not be obvious why these bills would be controversial: They purport to protect public-school students’ ability to express their religious beliefs, pray or take part in organized religious activities during and after the school day. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that these bills would erode the separation of church and state in Florida’s schools in violation of the First Amendment.

Student religious expression in public schools must always be voluntary and never sponsored or promoted by school officials. 

Similar bills, often called Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Acts (RVAAs), pop up across the country every legislative session. Some supporters argue that they are necessary to put a stop to the alleged rampant persecution of religious students in our public schools. But these claims are usually built upon false or exaggerated stories. These bills are entirely unnecessary to meet this alleged goal, The Constitution and current law already ensure that public-school students have the right to express their religious beliefs at school, join religious clubs and be free of religious discrimination. Redundancy, however, isn’t the only reason we oppose SB 436, HB 303, and similar bills across the country.

Other supporters, like state Sen. Dennis Baxley, the sponsor of SB 436, argue that such bills simply provide clarity to teachers “so that you don’t have varying interpretations of what’s appropriate and can actually have a policy that secures our First Amendment rights.” As Americans United explained in our letter to the Florida Senate, though, these bills actually create confusion rather than clarity and increase the risk of constitutional violations.

Most troubling, these bills will harm students’ religious freedom. Both SB 436 and HB 303 would require teachers to permit religious expression in all school assignments without penalty, opening the door for students who so desire to use class time to proselytize and advance their own religious views on classmates. A student, for example, could use every assignment that includes a class presentation as an opportunity to convince any non-believers in the class that they need to accept Jesus to achieve salvation. Alternatively, students in science classes could try to turn every class discussion into a debate about evolution vs. creationism.

And just as worrying, the Senate version would also require all public schools to allow students to deliver prayers at school events and activities. Taken together, these provisions would allow the majority religion at each school to inundate all school events with their religion. For those in the minority, it threatens to make them feel like an outsider in their own school.

Both versions of the bill would put Florida’s public schools in a bind, as they would be forced to choose between violating the new state law and violating the U.S. Constitution. Either way, taxpayer money would likely be wasted on litigation.

Americans United, of course, supports the right of students to voluntarily profess their religious beliefs, as long as that expression is not coercive and doesn’t interfere with the school’s educational mission. However, neither the Florida legislature nor the public school system should be in the business of promoting speech that violates the First Amendment.