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House bill may stand alone on school prayer

The bill addresses student-led prayer, but it's not expected to progress without a Senate companion.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


The bill addresses student-led prayer, but it's not expected to progress without a Senate companion.

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

But the bill, which would allow school boards to adopt resolutions approving prayer at non-mandatory assemblies, has no Senate companion and is considered unlikely to get a hearing there.

The bill would let students decide what to say, without influence from officials, and those who volunteer to lead prayer would be picked randomly.

Almost every lawmaker who spoke against the bill Wednesday was Jewish, and several recalled confrontations they'd had as children in an era when classroom prayer, mostly mainstream Christian, went unquestioned.

Rep. Stacy Ritter, a Jewish Democrat from Coral Springs, said she feels excluded when guest pastors at the House invoke Jesus in their opening prayers.

"I don't pray to Jesus as Lord ... so when the minister closes his prayer, my sense of peace and tranquility disappears because that prayer wasn't intended for me," Ritter said.

"It was intended for Christian members," she added.

But bill supporters argued that the First Amendment that prohibits an established religion 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," Holloway said.

Legislators passed a similar measure in 1996, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that public schools can't let students lead stadium crowds in prayer before games because it amounted to government backing of religion.

Several senators said Wednesday the bill probably won't make it to the governor this year. Because the bill lacks a Senate companion, it would have to be amended onto an existing Senate bill -- possibly an education bill.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Pruitt said he doesn't want to see that happen.

"It takes too much time, it's too divisive and it's too late in the session," said Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

Sen. Jim Sebesta, a St. Petersburg Republican, said the Senate is unlikely to take up such a controversial bill this late, particularly when it hadn't passed any Senate committees.

"The Senate doesn't seem to do things like that," Sebesta said.

Those who support the measure say it protects students' free speech rights.

"This is a bill about freedom," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

"He (a student) can say the F-word. He can call anyone what he wants, and it's free speech. But he can't address his heavenly father," Baxley said.

House opponents of the bill had tried and failed last week 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.

"Prayer needs to be in our heart. It needs to be in our soul. It needs to be in our minds. We do not need to have the prayer heard at a school event," said Rep. Kenneth Gottlieb, D-Miramar.

"It (the bill) is offensive to a good portion of the state of Florida," Gottlieb added.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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