House okays pledge bill for students
By ALISA ULFERTS
© St. Petersburg Times,
TALLAHASSEE -- What was supposed to be a budget-cutting session turned into a show of patriotism Tuesday as the state House of Representatives passed a bill that would require Florida schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning.
The measure passed 115-1. Since more than two-thirds of House members cast ballots, the vote easily overrode Gov. Jeb Bush's call to keep this week's special session narrowly focused on cutting the state budget to make up for a $1.3-billion shortfall.
"I think it's important at this time to have our children learn about our flag and what it represents," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Lauderdale.
Mack said he had planned to file the bill during the Legislature's regular session in January, but said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks compelled him to file it sooner. The Senate would have to approve the same bill and Bush would have to sign it before it could become law.
Only one member, Fort Lauderdale Democrat Chris Smith, voted against the bill. Smith said he and other lawmakers had gathered to fix the budget, not pass "unconstitutional" bills.
When asked why none of his fellow Democrats joined him in voting against the bill, Smith shrugged.
"People are scared to vote against it. But I was brought here to uphold the Constitution," Smith said.
Smith isn't the only one opposed to the measure on constitutional grounds.
Larry Spalding, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he worries that the bill will exclude people whose religion prohibits them from pledging allegiance to anyone but their god.
"They say Judeo-Christian but they don't mean Judeo. They mean Christian," Spalding said.
"We're fighting for freedom, for the right to dissent, and this says you must consent," he added.
House Speaker Tom Feeney said he was not worried that the bill could isolate children who belong to religious minority groups. The law allows children to forgo the pledge if they have a note from their parents, Feeney noted.
"I think having children pledge to the flag is not inappropriate," Feeney said.
The flag bill wasn't the only measure House lawmakers passed Tuesday. They also approved a bill that bars homeowners associations from prohibiting the display of the American flag. That bill was sponsored by Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel.
"This bill is about patriotism," Sobel said, her neck wrapped in a red, white and blue scarf. "This bill is about the right to display the flag on one's own property," Sobel added.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire