There are two bills in the Florida legislature ‘that purport to support’ freedom of religious expression in schools. Federal and state constitutions already support religious expression. Why does Florida need a law?
SB 436 requires districts to comply with federal requirements in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Is there a need for a law to guarantee rights that are already protected in the constitution? This new law prohibits,
on the basis of religious viewpoints or expression:
- districts from discriminating against students, parents or staff
- penalties or rewards in student assignments
The bill authorizes students to:
- wear religious clothing, accessories or jewelry
- pray or engage in religious activities
- organize religious activities, clubs, gatherings
Staff must be allowed to voluntarily participate in student led activities on school grounds under specified circumstances. The district is required to adopt a limited public forum policy that is based on a model crafted by the Florida Department of Education. Students could express religious views at organized events. In the House version of this bill, HB 303 is amended to exclude this limited public forum policy. Also in this version, students are not allowed to imply district endorsement of their views.
US and Florida Constitutions already protect religious freedom. Senator Baxley states, however, that schools can be arbitrary in their interpretation of what is allowed. There may be many examples, but the one in Alachua County in 2009 was very troubling. The ACLU filed suit to protect the rights of students to wear anti Islam T shirts. Free speech, even hurtful free speech must be protected. Many school districts turn to dress codes to avoid the inevitable conflict. Now some religious groups have organized Adopt a School strategies . Why?
Opponents to these freedom of religious expression bills question their impact, according to the Miami Herald. The increased visibility of religious expression by some groups could have a ‘chilling effect’ on others. Teachers might also experience heightened criticism when they teach evolution or other science concepts that certain groups do not espouse.
Legal cases abound that prohibit public schools from sponsoring or requiring students to engage in religious events or expressions. Where does allowing and requiring begin and end? The Florida Senate analysis is here. One of the most commonly cited Supreme Court rulings in 1971 is now called The Lemon Test. An action must
- be a government action must have a secular purpose
- have a purpose not to inhibit or advance religion
- have no excessive entanglement between government and religion
These are judgment calls.
Thomas Jefferson strongly argued for the concept of total separation of church and state. Opposition has never ceased. It likely never will. Schools should be a free zone where different religious views and views about religion are respected.