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    Byrd puts prayer bill on hold in House

    Speaker Johnnie Byrd says the threat of war and the importance of Israel as an ally make this bad time to debate school prayer.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 18, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker Johnnie Byrd says impending war and the importance of Israel as an American ally have prompted him to block a vote on a bill that would allow students to pray in school.

    Byrd supports voluntary school prayer. But the Plant City Republican on Monday called the issue "very divisive" and said now is not the time to vote on it.

    "I believe that bringing the prayer bill up right now would create the kind of dissension that we don't need, in light of the possibilities that may occur," Byrd said. "We shouldn't be afraid of a full and fair debate on those issues, but I think the timing sends a signal. I don't think now is the time."

    The prayer bill would allow school boards to allow "non-sectarian and non-proselytizing" prayer at graduations or assemblies. Critics, including a number of Jewish organizations, say it's unconstitutional because it goes beyond the guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Education. The agency has told school boards that students may read a Bible or say grace, but school officials may not "encourage or discourage prayer."

    The bill (HB 243) is sponsored by a Democrat, Rep. Wilbert Holloway of Miami, but it has strong support from Republicans who control the Legislature. It cleared its only committee reference by a 13-5 vote on March 5, setting up a floor vote.

    Byrd's decision to prevent a vote illustrates how a speaker can single-handedly control the fate of a bill. It also suggests that Byrd, who had a rocky start, wants to keep peace in the House as much as possible.

    Last week, Byrd met privately with four House Democrats who pleaded with him not to call for a vote on the bill. Only one of the four, Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, is Jewish. The other three are Catholics, including Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, who said Byrd did not mention the importance of Israel in their meeting.

    "I think Speaker Byrd made the right decision," Gannon said Monday. "Our country is going through a difficult time right now."

    Byrd left open a possibility of a vote later in the session, but he said that depends on what happens in the Middle East.

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