Prayer Legislation in Florida Awaits Governor’s Signature

The fate of a school reform bill authorizing group prayer in Florida’s secondary schools rests with Gov. Lawton Chiles.

But what he will do with it is anyone’s guess.

Both houses of the Florida Legislature overwhelmingly have approved legislation that would allow voluntary, student-initiated prayer at school events.

The move has galvanized Florida’s Jewish community to embark on the most significant Jewish mobilizations against school prayer legislation in recent years.

Local Jewish communal leaders, grass-roots organizers and a coalition of Jewish umbrella organization are urging Florida’s nearly 650,000 Jewish residents to voice their opposition and call for the governor’s veto.

The Florida Legislature, which has been pushing for group school prayer for years, is not charting new territory.

Throughout the South, conservative state legislatures have moved in recent years to pass laws sanctioning various forms of school prayer.

Several of the laws in these states, including those in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, have been contested as a breach of constitutional separation of church and state.

But this marks the first time such legislation has moved this far in a state with a large Jewish population, experts say. Florida has the fourth largest Jewish population in the country.

“This should be a wake-up call to the Jewish community across the country that even where you have large numbers, you’ve got to constantly be working and vigilant,” said Stephen Silberfarb, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“The radical right and those that support these kind of amendments, they’re not going to shy away from places where there are large Jewish populations,” Silberfarb said.

Chiles has not yet decided whether to veto or sign the Florida legislation, which was scheduled to land on his desk this week.

“When the bill gets to us, he’ll review it and make his decision,” said Karen Pankowski, a spokeswoman for Chiles.

Chiles, a Democrat in his second term, is not up for re-election and therefore “does not have to worry about political fallout” form the action he takes, Silberfarb said.

Still, Chiles faces public opinion polls in Florida showing wide support for prayer in school, Silberfarb said.

“If we give him a legal reason to veto the bill, that gives him cover,” he said. “He’s got to see that this is a core issue with our community and really cuts to the heart of the separation between church and state.”

Opponents say the prayer provisions of the Florida legislation, which also seeks to raise the requirements for high school graduations, have been deliberately worded to sound innocuous.

It would authorize public school boards to allow “the use of an invocation or a benediction at a secondary school commencement exercise, a secondary school- related sporting event or a secondary school-related student assembly.”

It further states that the prayers shall be “at the discretion of the students,” that it must be “given by a student volunteer” and shall be “non- sectarian and non-proselytizing in nature.”

The measure says, “School personnel shall not participate in, or otherwise influence the exercise of, the discretion of the students in the determination of whether to use an invocation or benediction.”

Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress, believes that the bill is patently unconstitutional.

“The statute creates a captive audience of listeners, and the Supreme Court has made it clear that you can’t be coerced into listening to someone else’s religious speech,” Stern said.

Moreover, opponents say that authorizing group prayer in school would only serve to highlight differences among students at a time when schools need to promote inclusion and tolerance.

“The Legislature, while purporting to support religion, has created the fertile soil for religious divisiveness through the passage of this bill,” said Art Teitelbaum, who is based in Miami and is the southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Florida state Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, one of the initial sponsors of the school reform legislation, dropped her support when prayer advocates succeeded in linking prayer to the wider legislation.

She explained her opposition to the bill this way: “When I was in the eighth grade, I had a homeroom teacher who prayed out loud to Jesus Christ every singly day during what was supposed to be a moment of silence,” said Schultz, who is Jewish. “I remember how uncomfortable it made me feel because that wasn’t what we did in my home.”

“All I’ve been able to think of is how many of the little kids are going to be squirming in their chairs if this bill becomes law,” she said, referring to the sixth- to twelfth-graders to whom the law would apply.

As Chiles mulls a decision, opponents of the legislation are having difficulty sizing up his stance on the stance on the issue.

Indeed, Chiles has said in the past that he believes that government has no place in the prayers people say.

“Governor Chiles does not like to mix government and religion,” said Judy Gilbert-Gould, director of the Community Relations Council of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “That’s been a public position of his.”

But earlier this year, Chiles told a group of Christian fundamentalists on National Prayer Day in Tallahassee, “If students have the right to pray silently, they should have the right to pray out loud.”

Jack Karako, southeast regional director of the AJCongress, downplayed the governor’s remark.

“We’re not sure whether that’s his philosophical belief or if it was just a convenient statement to make in front of that particular crowd,” Karako said, adding that Chiles made the comment before the bill passed the House and Senate.

Most Jews working on the issue, meanwhile, remain confident that Chiles will take Jewish views into account.

“He was elected in large part due to the Jewish community,” Karako said, adding, “I think we still have a friend in Lawton Chiles.”

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