Legislature fails to update school laws
By ALISA ULFERTS, STEVE BOUSQUET and LUCY MORGAN
TALLAHASSEE -- The Legislature had one thing to do this week and didn't get it done.
A special session to update Florida's education laws ended Friday in a spectacular meltdown over language spelling out religious freedom for students.
It was the second time in as many weeks that the Legislature collapsed into chaos and failed to approve the 1,800-page bill.
It's also the second time Gov. Jeb Bush has called a special session that ended in failure. The first was in October to cut the state budget.
An angry Bush threatened to call lawmakers back to Tallahassee as early as Monday to finish the job.
An unusual coalition of liberal Democrat and conservative Republican senators blocked the bill because of a provision allowing students to distribute religious literature and proselytize to fellow students.
Jewish lawmakers feared the measure would be used to harass religious minorities. Christian lawmakers feared it could invite Satan worshipers to school.
"If you've ever had a teenager you know how they go through this temporary attraction to the dark side," said Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. "This is just giving the occult every single opportunity in the world to get youngsters' minds and turn them around to the dark side."
The House had passed the bill and adjourned, forcing the Senate to take it or leave it.
"If the governor wants to call us back, I think that's fine," said Senate President John McKay. "I think there's just one divisive issue, and I think we could handle it in a one-day session."
Opposition spanned party lines in the Senate and "spread like wildfire and it was almost spontaneous combustion," McKay added.
House Speaker Tom Feeney said changing the bill after a joint House and Senate negotiating team had approved it would cast doubt on the legislative process.
"Maybe we should just sit here and let the Senate pass bill after bill until they pass one we like," Feeney said.
The massive bill conforms state laws to the new kindergarten-through-graduate-school system, and re-enacts the higher education laws before they expire in January. The bill is a crucial part of Bush's education legacy.
Bush was angry at the Republican Legislature's failure. "People are scared that somehow this is going to be used against them in a campaign," Bush said. "It's a nonissue. It's embedding in our statutes protections for religious freedom. It's constitutional in nature. It's not exclusive, it's inclusive."
Supporters of the provision said it simply spells out existing law and court cases, giving guidance to school officials. Opponents say it would vastly expand religious activity at schools, opening the door to countless lawsuits.
Bush didn't settle on a date to bring lawmakers back, leading many to speculate that he'll wait until they return in another special session this month to finish a budget.
Just as with October's special session on budget cuts that ended without a real plan in place, Bush and his legislative liaison, Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, apparently did not see the meltdown in the making.
The Senate backlash mushroomed overnight, after Jewish senators objected to the religion section during negotiations Thursday night. The senators said they would have brought the issue up sooner but couldn't reach their religious scholars until sundown Thursday, the last day of Passover.
But Brogan brushed aside those concerns and said the bill shouldn't be held up at the last minute over language that had been in the House version of the revisions all along.
But by Friday morning, Christian lawmakers had joined the opposition, saying they feared the language would make schools a magnet for questionable religions. That was enough to siphon 30 of the 40 votes in the Senate, leaving the bill 11 votes shy of passage.
Sen. Don Sullivan, a St. Petersburg Republican who was on the negotiating team, said he regretted his Thursday vote to approve the compromise bill that included the religious language.
"Once we had a chance to think about it, we were afraid it opened schools up to people who we didn't want there. It wasn't just Scientology, we have a problem in the prisons with groups that want to smoke marijuana or sacrifice chickens," Sullivan said.
"I regret my vote last night. We might have continued the conference and resolved this if I had held out and crashed the process last night."
While that provision caused the abrupt end of the session, it was by no means the only controversial item in the bill. Democrats are furious over a provision that would allow school boards to permit guns on campus if they are locked in cars. "When a child decides, 'I'm going to get that teacher for failing me,' and goes out and unlocks the car and gets the gun and kills your child or my child, you will have that blood on your hands," warned Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Republicans accused Democrats of fearmongering for political purposes, but Democrats said they plan to fight the gun provision.
Said Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach: "What makes anyone in this room think it is good education policy to say it is okay for students to bring guns onto campus?"
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