Florida: Bill Filed to Insert Religion into Public Schools

Religion in public schools may become law thanks to Kim Daniels and Dennis Baxley - SB 436

Legislation filed by state lawmakers would allow the insertion of religious beliefs into public classrooms across the state of Florida.  House Bill 303 and it’s companion bill Senate Bill 436 – known collectively as the “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act” – would prohibit Florida public school districts “from discriminating against students, parents, & school personnel on basis of religious viewpoints or expression.”

As this is already state and federal law per the First Amendment, a deeper dive into the mechanics of the bill reveals the legislation’s true intent.

Much of the text of the two bills contains language already covered under existing precedent (mostly relating to students’ ability to exercise their religious beliefs in schools). While this is redundant, it’s not unconstitutional or out of the ordinary.

What may be problematic, however, are these three sections:

A school district may not prevent school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students at reasonable times before or after the school day if such activities are voluntary and do not conflict with the responsibilities or assignments of such personnel.

A school district shall give a religious group access to the same school facilities for assembling as given to secular groups without discrimination based on the religious content of the group’s expression. A group that meets for prayer or other religious speech may advertise or announce its meetings in the same manner and to the same extent that a secular group may advertise or announce its meetings.

The Department of Education shall develop a model policy regarding a limited public forum and voluntary expression of religious viewpoints by students and school personnel in public schools pursuant to this section. The department shall publish the model policy on its website. Each district school board shall adopt and implement the department’s model policy.

Let’s examine them one-by-one to understand why this legislation potentially stands in opposition to the First Amendment (mostly, the Establishment Clause within that amendment).

The first section is pretty straight-forward as it attempts to confer to taxpayer-funded employees the right to engage in religious expression while they are acting on behalf of the school (which, legally, is acting on behalf of the state).

Even when students start a religious activity, anyone employed by the school may not at any time participate with or or in sight of students. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held this creates a religious establishment that violates the Constitution.

Though dozens of legal precedents exist on this subject, three large precedents demonstrate how this section of the legislation wouldn’t hold up in court:

  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe: The central concept this ruling offers is that school resources and property may not be used to endorse or assist student prayer. In this case it means employees, staff members, teachers, coaches, and any other paid or volunteer member acting on behalf of a public school may not take part in prayer with student athletes using school property.
  • Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick: Borden deals with school football coaches in so much that it forbids coaches from participating in student-led prayer on school grounds. It reinforced earlier rulings forbidding school officials and administrators from endorsing religion through action, participation or favorable treatment.
  • Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District: This precedent also relates to football coaches praying with student athletes on and off the field. It found that even when coaches pray with their students in a voluntary setting is has the effect of coercing non-Christians to join or stay quiet lest they suffer retaliation from their peers or retribution from the administrator in the form of fewer games played, less favorable treatment, etc.

Suffice to say, arguing an activity is ‘voluntary’ does not pass constitutional muster with school religious establishment cases because much of the time, coercion is the mitigating factor. Moreover, so long as school employees are on school grounds charged with overseeing the welfare of students, they are acting in an official capacity whether they are standing at a flagpole before school or on a football field after school.

The second section is also pretty cut and dry.

Secular organizations are distinct from religious organizations as they are not federally regulated the same way (at least from an educational standpoint).  Whereas a speaker about civics or public safety would pose no constitutional issue when interacting with students during the school day, religious organizations do not and cannot legally have that same access as it has the effect of endorsing one religious belief system above others (which violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause).

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) assembled a succinct FAQ on this for schools requiring additional guidance on when and how religious organizations may either interact with students or use public school grounds for organizational purposes. They state in part:

During school hours, outside religious organizations and clubs must not meet at public schools. After school hours, such groups may meet at a public school only if the school permits other outside clubs and organizations to meet at the same time and does not endorse the club’s religious activity.

During school hours: An outside religious organization or club must not meet at public schools.

After school hours: An outside religious organization or club may meet at a public school under the following circumstances:

  • The group may meet only if the school allows other outside organizations or clubs to meet at the same time.
  • The school must assume the duty of ensuring that it does not appear to be endorsing or disapproving of religion.
  • The school district must proactively work to prevent even the perception that it may be endorsing the club’s religious activity. In Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U. S. 98 (2001), the U. S. Supreme Court found no perceived endorsement of a religious club’s activities because the club meetings were not held in elementary school classrooms, the instructors were not school teachers, the students ranged in age, and the children who attended the club had obtained signed permission slips from their parents.
  • The school may not allow the club or organization to solicit students, unless it allows all groups to do so. If the school allows such solicitation, it must make sure that no proselytizing or religious message is part of the communication.
  • A school district must take extra care to make sure that students from minority religions are not teased or made to feel unwelcome or left out merely because they choose not to attend a religious club meeting.

Just as religious organizations may not be given the same access to students as non-religious organizations because of the Establishment Clause, the same holds true for utilizing school announcement systems for the purposes of advertising religious messages. Whether inviting students to attend a religious event or encouraging them to believe a certain way, use of school announcements for religious purposes has repeatedly been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

While students are permitted to use school PA systems to announce their own organizational meetings (religious, secular or otherwise),outside organizations are banned from such practices based on this precedent (which should sound familiar): Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.

That’s right, the same legal precedent that poses constitutional questions about the first section also presents legal problems for the second section.

Specifically, Sante Fe dealt with use of public address systems before football games for prayer. In essence, the court found that students are a captive audience for such announcements and that given use of the school’s resources and permission, those messages (regardless of intent or content) constitute an endorsement of those beliefs.

“Regardless of the listener’s support for or objection to the message, an objective Santa Fe High School student will unquestionably perceive the pregame prayer as stamped with her school’s seal of approval,” the high court said in the decision.

The third section relates closely to the first as it directs the school to create a policy not only to protect student, but staff religious expression on campus. While the former is already protected, the latter is heavily regulated with exceptions carved out (i.e.: private prayer spaces for teachers who must pray during the day as a component of their beliefs, for instance).

While teachers and staff do not leave their religious beliefs at the door when they enter a school, they are simultaneously bound by the First Amendment (and its countless subsequent legal precedents) from using their taxpayer-funded position to proselytize those beliefs in any fashion in view of students – and, in many cases, around their peers.

This began with two landmark cases: Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963).

While Engel affirmed that state educational employees (read: taxpayer-funded) could not constitutionally endorse religion or recite prayer in classrooms as a part of their official duties, Abington dealt explicitly with religious proselytizing in schools – that is, it banned it.

Several cases since then have guided the nature of teacher religious rights versus responsibilities to maintain a constitutional separation of church and state in the classroom. Some of the more prominent cases include:

Each of those cases is worth reading as they bring nuance to the bludgeoning force the sponsors of this legislation are attempting to push through the Florida legislature.

It’s also telling how much thought and research the bills’ sponsors put into writing and proposing the legislation too judging by the public statements they’ve made about it.

Promotion on Rep. Daniels’ Facebook | Responses come from “Pastor Kim Daniels” rather than Rep. Kim Daniels

State Representative Kimberly Daniels (D-Jacksonville) – a newly elected official in her district after serving as a councilwoman and Christian pastor at Spoken Word Ministries – told press, “How can a state fund and have chaplains in prisons and not have chaplains in schools? A child should not have to wait to go to prison to meet a chaplain. And I think that says it all.”

State Senator Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) – the former executive director of the Florida Christian Coalition – is the Senate sponsor for the bill. Commenting on its introduction, he told press, “Rep. Daniels came over to my office with some friends and asked me.” He appreciated Daniels’ “personal touch” adding the legislation is “worthy of discussion” and in order to protect “religious freedom.”

When pressed by several local news outlets to provide examples of the type of rights being denied in schools, neither had any examples but were certain their legislation was solving a real problem. The Gainesville Sun examined this in an editorial pointing out the two lawmakers are proposing a solution to a non-existent problem.

They said in part:

We are not saying religious rights are never violated in our schools, because undoubtedly it occurs — but not enough to warrant a new law that essentially mimics the rules and policies already in place, not to mention the law of the land.

There is reason to worry, as well, that passage of HB 303 — and with our conservative-led Legislature, it is a real possibility — that its provisions will embolden non-mainstream worshipers and even Christians themselves and create conflict where little or none now exists. And that is not even taking into account the potential legal challenges.

When Christian legislators attempt to write laws so broad as to pass constitutional muster in an attempt to allow their personal religious beliefs additional access to classrooms, everyone suffers. Anytime lawmakers legalize one religion’s ability to proselytize, they must – by law – allow every religious belief system the same access under the First Amendment of the Constitution. That is why the Supreme Court has traditionally ruled that schools should remain religiously neutral.

Should this legislation pass and be signed into law, Florida schools may see a decided uptick in Satanism, Islam, atheism, and other non-Christian belief systems parents typically scream about at school board meetings when they find out their children will be exposed to them in an academic literature or historical context.

Imagine what will happen when that transforms from academics to actual in-school proselytizing. You can thank Daniels and Baxley for that chaos and costly legal battle if and when it happens.

If you want to reach out to either lawmaker to express your opinion, you can reach them here:

State Representative Kimberly Daniels:

State Senator Dennis Baxley :

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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