Florida public school students will have added protection for expressing their faith on campus during the upcoming school year, thanks to a new law that went into effect July 1.
Supporters say the bill just reiterates existing constitutional protections for religious liberty by listing specific practices with which educators cannot interfere.
Opponents say the bill goes too far and could unleash a rash of lawsuits.The Religious Expression in Public Schools Act forbids school districts from discriminating against students, parents, or staff members for their religious views or expression. It specifies students are free to refer to religion in their schoolwork, pray without interference, and wear religious symbols without fear of punishment.
The Florida House passed its version of the bill unanimously, but Republicans in the state Senate insisted on adding a provision that would require schools to allow student-led prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events, like sporting events and assemblies. It passed mostly along party lines.
During legislative hearings, advocates offered plenty of evidence that educators don’t always understand or respect religious liberty protections outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
State Rep. Patricia Williams, a freshman Democrat and a former educator, co-sponsored the House version of the bill because of an incident that happened three years ago at a Broward County elementary school, where a teacher told a student he couldn’t read his Bible during free reading time and forced the child to put the book away.
Although the state Education Practices Commission later reprimanded the teacher, Williams said she wanted to make sure something like that never happened again.
“If I never pass another bill … this was why I’m here,” she said. “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.”
Of course, opposition to anything faith-related is not limited to Florida schools. Coaches aren’t allowed to pray on school property, pro-life groups are barred from starting student clubs on campus, and every year at least one graduation speech gets censored for religious content.
Florida-based religious liberty lawyer Mat Staver told the Tampa Bay Times the new law would protect school districts from themselves.
“Having this in the statute will be very beneficial,” he said. “Schools don’t want to be sued. They’ve got better things to do. And people don’t want their religious rights violated.”