State lawmakers consider school-prayer proposals
By The Associated Press,
|Rep. Mike Hogan, R-Jacksonville, standing, and Rep. Wilbert Holloway, D-Miami, watch as vote on Holloway's school-prayer bill is tabulated yesterday.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, legislators in Florida and South Carolina are debating whether to allow prayer in public schools. Supporters say students need a sanctuary after the attacks. Opponents claim school prayer is unconstitutional and unfair to students who don’t practice the majority religion.
The Florida House, called into special session to fix a budget deficit, passed a bill yesterday to allow volunteer student prayer at graduations and other nonrequired student assemblies.
The vote was 87-31. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Passage of the measure came over the objection of members who said the bill was far outside the scope of what lawmakers had been called back to Tallahassee in a special session to do cut the budget to eliminate a $1.3 billion shortfall.
But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Wilbert "Tee" Holloway, said that in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and a call from President Bush for prayer, there was no better time.
"This is a time when all people in our nation should be called to prayer," said Holloway, a Miami Democrat.
Besides claiming that it went beyond what lawmakers were summoned to do, opponents also argued that it was unconstitutional and unfair to students who may not share the religious beliefs of the students offering the prayers.
"If Sept. 11 taught us anything, it should have taught us the necessity of fighting against bias, bigotry and racism," said Rep. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise.
The introduction of the bill was a surprise. House Speaker Tom Feeney said the legislation met his two criteria for being heard during such a compressed special session, scheduled to end Nov. 1.
One requirement is that members understand the proposal and aren't asked to learn a new issue. He said the bill met that condition.
The other was that it was somehow related to the state's response to the terrorist attacks, which are also partly blamed for the state's budget crisis. He said he believed the measure did that, too.
"The psyche and faith of the country is an issue that a lot of parents are concerned about," said Feeney, R-Oviedo.
But Rep. Chris Smith said that during a special session that costs $40,000 a day, lawmakers shouldn't be taking up other issues.
"Let's stop doing all this other foolishness," said Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "Let's do the people's work and go home."
Several Jewish members have vigorously fought the proposal in past sessions and said it offends them. They say such a policy would force non-Christian students to listen to Christian prayers or forgo important events like graduation.
The bill wouldn't take effect until July 1, 2002, after next year's high school graduations.
A similar measure, also sponsored by Holloway, passed the House in the regular legislative session earlier this year but never passed the Senate.
Five years ago, the Legislature passed a school-prayer bill, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles. Gov. Jeb Bush has not said whether he supports the legislation.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that public schools can't let students lead stadium crowds in prayer before games because it amounted to government backing of religion.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, however, upheld in May a policy allowing student-led prayers at graduations that was put in place by the school board in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville.
That policy has also been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, three House Republican lawmakers sent a letter yesterday to state Attorney General Charlie Condon seeking a legal opinion on the constitutionality of school prayer.
Reps. Rick Quinn, Rita Allison and Jim Klauber want a law requiring a moment of prayer in the state's public schools. They are seeking to change a state law that currently requires schools to "provide for a minute of mandatory silence." Their proposal would change the wording to a "moment of silent prayer."
"We hope to show the critics of our proposal that there is a way to make it constitutional," said Quinn, the House majority leader. "This is the next step in our crusade to protect the religious liberties of South Carolina students."
Quinn has said he expects challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. But he stresses the Constitution intends for people to have "freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."
Prayer should be "something that can be said in public schools. Right now it's a dirty word, and that's wrong," Quinn said.
"We can no longer sit idly by and suffer from the threats and the intimidations of the ACLU and other organizations that seek to cleanse our governmental institutions of any face of practicing religion," Klauber said earlier this month. "It's time we do the right thing, and we begin to push for a free exercise of religion throughout our state government."
Condon said yesterday he has a legal team researching the issue. He had no time frame on when the team would issue an opinion.
Legal experts have said the prayer proposal is unlikely to pass a constitutional challenge.
Eldon Wedlock, a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina, said the proposed change “flies in the face” of Wallace v. Jaffree, a 1985 Supreme Court decision.
In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided 6-3 that a moment of "silent meditation or voluntary prayer" in Alabama schools was unconstitutional. "It was clear from legislative history that the purpose of the statute was to introduce prayer into schools," Wedlock said. "That's an impermissible purpose."
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