Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Friday that protects students’ right to lead prayers and religious gatherings in Florida schools, despite ardent criticism from the left.
The Florida Student and Personnel Religious Liberties Act, or SB 436, ensures that students of every grade in Florida schools have the right to pray, lead prayers, and organize and participate in religious activities and organizations before, during, and after school, without fear of discrimination or punishment. The bill also affords school faculty the right to participate in student initiated religious activities.
The bill proved contentious, according to a report from the Bradenton Herald, as Democrats in the Florida legislature cited concerns that the bill would foster alienation of and discrimination against specifically non-Christian students. This sentiment echoes Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent scolding of a Christian nominee for Deputy Budget Director.
Democratic state Sen. Kevin Rader labeled the bill “religiously coercive, divisive, and unconstitutional.”
Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley, the author of the bill, disagreed. “Part of what we’re protecting is those basic rights for religious expression, which are protected speech,” Baxley said. “And we’re letting people know it doesn’t stop at the property line of the school site. We owe our educators some clarity on this so it can be applied uniformly across the state in a way that respects all faiths.”
The bill has also drawn harsh criticism from outside the Florida legislature, with the Anti-Defamation League, an organization devoted to fighting antisemitism, and Equality Florida, an LGBT advocacy group, expressing concerns that the bill would actually encourage Christians to use religion as a tool of discrimination.
“I don’t think we’re the ones that are intolerant at this stage,” Baxley told the Miami Herald. “Maybe that was true at some point in history, but right now, that’s not where the intolerance is coming from.”
While some argued that the bill was redundant, as the U.S. Constitution already protects the free exercise of religion, proponents of the bill, like Republican state Sen. Rob Bradley, expressed a need for clearer protection of that right in what they see as a growing climate of hostility toward persons of faith.
“The pendulum has swung way, way too far, to a situation where teachers, parents, and students are afraid to express things that are important to them, their core beliefs,” Bradley said.
The religious liberty bill passed through the state legislature, despite its controversy, as part of a package deal to pass another bill that modifies to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.”