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    House favors prayers led by students

    Critics say the bill could force some students to be a captive audience at some events. It awaits final approval.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- The state House tentatively approved a bill Monday that would allow student-led prayer at some school events, despite warnings from opponents that it could exclude religious minorities.

    The prayer bill would allow school boards to adopt resolutions approving student-led prayer at graduation ceremonies and non-mandatory assemblies.

    Students would decide what to say, without influence from school officials, and those who volunteer to lead the prayers would be picked randomly.

    Opponents of the bill say religious minorities would be forced to skip their graduation or become a captive audience.

    Some Jewish members of the House recalled troubles they had as children when classroom prayer, mostly mainstream Christian, went unquestioned.

    In response to one member's suggestion that school shootings were unheard of in the days of classroom prayer, opponents replied that feelings of exclusion, not lack of organized prayer, lead to violence.

    "Would you miss your high school graduation?" asked Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach.

    "In practice, these are compulsory events," he said.

    Opponents tried and failed to substitute an amendment that would have affirmed students' rights to pray individually or in groups in school areas such as the cafeteria, but not before a school assembly.

    But bill supporters argued that the First Amendment also guarantees the right to exercise religion. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Wilbert Holloway, D-Miami, said the measure wasn't intended to offend anyone.

    "It is not intended to advance or endorse any religion or religious belief," said Holloway.

    Legislators passed a similar measure in 1996, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles. That action killed education reforms wrapped up in the prayer bill, including an increase in the grade-point average required for graduation.

    The earliest that House members likely would consider the bill for final approval would be next week, but the bill does not have a Senate companion.

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