TALLAHASSEE — Efforts by the Legislature to make explicitly clear the rights students and teachers have to express their religious beliefs in Florida public schools is ready for a floor vote in the Senate, while earning high praise in an initial House hearing.
A fast-tracked measure in the Senate (SB 436) — one of President Joe Negron's top priorities — passed its second and final committee Tuesday on a party-line vote, shortly before a House panel unanimously advanced its own version (HB 303).
The House conversation was in stark contrast to the Senate's discussions, where that chamber's measure has polarized members.
The bills were once identical, but the House Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee amended its bill to make it more narrow than the Senate's — removing some of the more controversial elements, such as a requirement that school districts adopt a Florida Department of Education-crafted policy that "establishes a limited public forum for student speakers at any school event." Such a provision would allow students of different faiths to, for example, pray at school assemblies.
The House's pared-down bill won bipartisan support and near-universal endorsement from a crowded audience. When the House committee ended its meeting after passing the bill unanimously, one audience member shouted out: "Can we close with a prayer?" The remark drew scattered applause.
Lithia Republican Jake Raburn, the House Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee chairman, called it "a bit perplexing that we have to be here when these protections are provided for." (He also chastised the League of Women Voters for its opposition, saying it was "disappointing" the group "opposed" rights that were already guaranteed.)
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent that chamber's bill to the floor on a slim vote. Consideration by the full Senate could happen as early as next week.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, told the Judiciary panel that his bill was needed because "many people of faith feel like there has been a chilling effect and almost a sterilization of the environment" for religious expression in the schools.
Supporters lined up to offer examples of students being prevented from mentioning Jesus, wearing a cross or religious-themed T-shirts, or writing papers about religious figures. Several pastors and representatives of religious groups voiced their support for the bill.
"I get emails all the time from parents and students being told, 'You can't say the name of Jesus in class — it's offending someone,'" Pam Olsen, founder of the Florida Prayer Network, said at the Senate committee hearing. "Or the name of Allah. Or whatever religion that student might be."
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said if a teacher, for instance, prevents a student from writing about a religious figure, "let's talk to that teacher and make sure that teacher understands that that can't happen. But we don't need to add confusing statutory language for protection of what's already protected."
One opponent of the bill — Brandon Haught, a Volusia County public school teacher and Florida Citizens for Science representative — warned that the chilling effect could go in the other direction, making teachers worry about teaching evolution for fear of discriminating against students who don't believe in evolution on religious grounds.
"Does this allow the student to challenge a teacher by saying, 'No, the earth is only 6,000 years old, and no, evolution didn't happen?'" Haught said. "Can I as a teacher go back and try to remediate that student by saying, 'No, we're not trying to discriminate against your religious beliefs, but I need to tell you the science?'"
The five Republicans on the committee voted to advance SB 436, while all four Democrats voted against it, with Sen. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, qualifying his vote as "respectfully, no."
One of the House sponsors, Lauderdale Lakes Democrat Patricia Williams, said an incident at Park Lakes Elementary in Broward County three years ago inspired her to file the bill. During free reading time, a student was reading the Bible, and his teacher told him to put it away. (The teacher was reprimanded last year by the state Education Practices Commission, the Sun Sentinel reported.)
"I, for one — if a child is reading, especially the Bible, it's good," said Williams, a former educator. "We read 'Harry Potter,' we read Donald Duck, we read 'Green Eggs & Ham.' If I have a student in my classroom, and they want to read the Bible and it's important to them, it's OK with me."
The freshman lawmaker added: "If I never pass another bill … this was why I'm here. This was very important, and this was very important for me so that students coming after me are given an opportunity to use their freedom of religious expression."
Critics last week in the Senate — including the Anti-Defamation League and Equality Florida — had argued the Senate measure was "too broad" and could actually allow for discrimination, not stop it. They worried students or teachers could force their religious beliefs on others and that the bill could potentially lead to bullying of those who don't share their beliefs, are non-religious or are members of a minority religion, such as Islam or Judaism.
Several House members said they viewed their version as codifying existing rights already guaranteed under the Florida and U.S. Constitutions and the Civil Rights Act.
"I truly believe this is not prayer in school; it's allowing options for people in our schools," said Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington.
Louis Jacobson is a senior correspondent for PolitiFact. Contact Kristen M. Clark at email@example.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark