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    A Times Editorial

    Another divisive prayer bill

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


    Democratic state Rep. Frank Peterman Jr. is harming the interests of his St. Petersburg area constituents by sponsoring a school prayer bill that will do nothing but throw school boards into a fractious debate over religion at public school events. Peterman and three fellow House freshmen are proposing a bill to give school boards around the state the discretion to allow "nonsectarian and nonproselytizing" student-initiated prayer at non-compulsory school events, such as graduation ceremonies and sporting events. Their bill, H.B. 1199, is expected to be voted on today in the House Council for Lifelong Learning. The Council is made up of lawmakers from five House committees; once legislation is approved there, it can go directly to the full House for a vote.

    Besides busing, no public school issue generates as much anger and contention as whether to allow student-initiated prayer. Yet, the law is clear. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said student-initiated prayer at public school football games violates our protection against church-state entanglement. In addition, the court last year reversed a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had approved a Duval County School Board policy on student-initiated prayer at graduation ceremonies. By doing so, the justices clearly signaled that the Establishment Clause is violated any time students pray under the imprimatur of the state.

    That's why it's so puzzling that legislators such as Peterman still insist on offering school prayer legislation. You'd think these religious lawmakers would take their oath to uphold the Constitution more seriously.

    In 1996, after a highly rancorous fight in the Legislature, a similar prayer bill was sent to the late-Gov. Lawton Chiles. He struggled with his decision but ultimately vetoed the measure. His veto message indicated he understood just how divisive the issue was: "The public schools in our pluralistic society are grounded upon the principle of inclusion," he wrote. "School programs which at their best bring people together in common bonds -- at sporting events, school assemblies and commencement exercises -- could be turned into events that tear people apart."

    The four House members sponsoring this bill, three of whom are African-American and one of whom is Hispanic, shouldn't need a lesson from the late governor on inclusion.

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