Ten years ago, the Santa Fe (Texas) Independent School District was just another American town that loved its high school football team. On Friday evenings, students congregated in metal bleachers to cheer for their friends, parents attended with camcorders and warm coffee in gloved hands, and full recaps of exciting games were printed in the local papers.
But not all residents felt comfortable participating in one of the town’s favorite pastimes. Prior to each game’s kickoff, a student selected by his/her peers would command the attention of the crowd over the field’s PA system and offer a prayer “to solemnize the event.” When challenged in the federal courts, the practice was deemed unconstitutional.
Upon reaching the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, held that the invocations, occurring in accordance with school policy, on school property and at school-sponsored or school-related events, constituted a governmental endorsement of religion. Stevens wrote that the Constitution forbids school districts from “exact[ing] religious conformity from a student as the price of joining her classmates at a varsity football game.”
The courts have since upheld the principles espoused in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe by consistently barring officially sanctioned public prayer from school-sponsored events.
So, why does Florida’s state legislature think that it can legalize what has been expressly forbidden by the federal Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court?
State Rep. Brad Drake (R-DeFuniak Springs) has been leading the charge, seeking to legislate prayer at non-mandatory school events including, but not limited to, assemblies, sports events and school dances.
On Wednesday, the House’s Pre-K-12 Policy Committee voted 10-3 to forward HB 31: a bill “prohibiting district school boards, administrative personnel and instructional personnel from discouraging or inhibiting student delivery of an inspirational message at a noncompulsory high school activity.”
While the bill maintains a façade of free exercise and neutrality by permitting “inspirational messages,” rather than “prayers and invocations” (as were specifically mentioned in the original draft), HB 31 is divisive, coercive, politically charged and unconstitutional.
Rep. Marty Kiar (D-Parkland) argued that the bill is “blatantly unconstitutional” and potentially unfair to students who do not belong to Florida’s Christian majority. Rep Dwight Bullard (D-Miami) agreed, adding that “the legislation could also create a scenario where a student could openly attack students who are gay or of a different race, and the teachers would be unable to stop that.”
Florida religious leaders affiliated with Americans United are speaking out. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro (who serves as president of the Americans United Board of Trustees) joined two other Florida clergy in supporting church-state separation.
Shapiro, the Rev. Dr. Harold Brockus and the Rev. Harry Parrot wrote a letter to Committee Chairman John Legg asking him to oppose HB31.
The letter reads, in part: “Allowing prayers in any school sponsored-context would make students who practice their faith differently from the majority or who adhere to minority faiths feel like outsiders. Forcing prayer upon public-school students not only violates the rights of those students, it also demeans the spiritual significance of religious belief.”
Supporters of HB 31 claim it is merely an affirmation of the free exercise rights of Florida students and teachers. But that’s just not true. The U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution already protect the right to pray. Students can pray voluntarily during non-instructional time, and thanks to the Federal Equal Access Act, they can form religiously motivated school clubs (if other secular clubs are allowed to form).
In short, the bill is religiously motivated and intended to endorse Christianity in the state’s public schools.
Speaking about his sponsorship of the measure in 2009, Drake said, “I don’t think its fundamentally right when 700 kids want to pray in school and three are against it, the government sides with those three and prohibits children from having the opportunity to pray to God in our schools.”
His statement couldn’t have been clearer, Drake supports silencing the voice of minority faiths and those with no faith at all in favor of school-sponsored majoritarian endorsements of Christianity.
This is unconstitutional. Applying the decision in Santa Fe v. Doe, wherein Justice Stevens wrote that Santa Fe’s school prayer policy was religiously motivated and, therefore, would violate the Lemon test even if no student were to ever offer a religious message, it is evident that HB 31 will not stand up to even the most lenient legal scrutiny.
If you live in Florida, take action to stop this blatant impugning of our Constitution! There is another hearing on the bill slated for Monday, March 22. We urge our Florida members to call their representatives to voice their opposition to this attack on the wall of separation.