Sen. Gary Siplin
A proposal by a Florida lawmaker to allow “inspirational” messages, including prayer, on a voluntary basis at some school events is drawing the opposition of several major lobby groups on legislative issues, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League.
The proposal from Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, would allow districts to adopt resolutions that allow prayer of invocation or benediction at secondary school events if they are at the discretion of the student government, given by student volunteers and do not involve school personnel.
“The purpose of this act is to provide for the solemnization and memorialization of secondary school events and ceremonies, and this act is not intended to advance or endorse any religion or religious belief,” said the proposal, which this week was approved 4-1 by the Senate PreK-12 Committee.
It still has multiple legislative hurdles, by Siplin said he’s hopeful that it will reach fruition this year.
But ADL lawyer David Barkey, according Gannett’s News-Press, condemned the plan for advancing religion.
“It coerces religion in violation of the Establishment Clause,” said Barkey.
And Ron Bilboa of the ACLU said Silpin’s idea would put religious expression up for a popular vote among students, and that isn’t allowed.
“We must guard against the promotion or endorsement of one particular set of religious beliefs over others,” he warned.
Siplin, whose proposal is supported by a companion bill in the House, has higher hopes.
“The majority of states already have laws enacted that permit prayer or silent meditation – and in some instances, mandate prayer or silent meditation. I simply want to empower our school districts to allow students to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion in the school setting,” he said.
Among the precedents creating the conflict is the 1962 Engele v. Vitale U.S. Supreme Court decision.
According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell, that decision found that under the First Amendment’s ban on enactment of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” “state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the state at the beginning of each school day – even if the prayer is denominationally nettral and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused.”
Since then, that pronouncement has been interpreted by a number of bodies to mean that there is a virtual prayer ban on school property. In Florida, one district fought a multiple-year court war after officials imposed rules that banned even ordinary phrases such as “God bless” from their campuses.
Ultimately, officials in the Santa Rosa County, Fla., School District agreed to gut an ACLU-inspired consent decree they imposed on students and faculty several years ago and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to settle a legal challenge to their decision.
Teachers say they are literally forced to pray in school closets to avoid contempt charges
The restrictions were so draconian that employee Michelle Winkler in 2009 was charged with contempt after her husband, who is not employed by the district, offered a meal prayer at a private event in a neighboring county.
During testimony in the case, she also described how she and a co-worker, who recently had lost a child, had to hide in a closet to pray.
Further, former Pace High School Principal Frank Lay, now retired, and Athletic Director Robert Freeman were tried for contempt after the ACLU demanded that they be punished. Freeman had been accused of offering a blessing for a lunch for some 20 adult booster club members.
While the battle over their own rights were raging in court, members of the 2009 graduating class at Pace expressed their objections to the ACLU restrictions on statements of religious faith by rising up en masse at their ceremony and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
In a dissent to the 1962 ruling, Justice Stewart wrote that the court was misapplying a constitutional principle.
“I cannot see how an ‘official religion’ is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our nation,” the dissent said.
“We deal here not with the establishment of a state church, which would, of course, be constitutionally impermissible, but with whether school children who want to begin their day by joining in prayer must be prohibited from doing so. Moreover, I think that the court’s task, in this as in all areas of constitutional adjudication is not responsibly aided by the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the ‘wall of separation,’ a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution.
“What is relevant to the issue here is not the history of an established church in sixteenth century England or in eighteenth century America, but the history of the religious traditions of our people, reflected in countless practices of the institutions and officials of our government.”
The dissent noted both the national anthem (Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation … and this be our motto ‘In God is our Trust) and the pledge of allegiance (under God) reference the Almighty.
“I do not believe that this court, or the Congress, or the president has, by the actions and practices I have mentioned, established an ‘official religion’ in violation of the Constitution,” the dissent said.
Among the references to God from American leaders:
- George Washington: “It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge.”
- President John Adams: “And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence.
- President Thomas Jefferson said: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.
- President James Madison said: “But the source to which I look . . . is in . . . my fellow citizens, and in the counsels of those representing them in the other departments associated in the care of the national interests. In these my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed, next to that which we have all been encouraged to feel in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic, and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplications and best hopes for the future.
- President Abraham Lincoln: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”
- President Grover Cleveland: “And let us not trust to human effort alone, but humbly acknowledging the power and goodness of Almighty God, who presides over the destiny of nations, and who has at all times been revealed in our country’s history, let us invoke His aid and His blessing upon our labors.
Siplin’s SB 98 is slated next to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The ADL, meanwhile, posts online a long list of situations which it says are constitutionally forbidden. Those include: organized prayer in the public school setting, vocal denominational or nondenominational prayer and ceremonial reading from the Bible, permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer before football games, for a coach to lead a team in prayer, prayers delivered by clergy at official graduation ceremonies, prayer by school officials, employees or outsiders at school assemblies, and teachers praying with or in the presence of students in school.