A bill aimed at codifying students’ religious expression is awaiting a signature from Florida Governor Rick Scott.
The Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act mandates that schools not “discriminate” against students, teachers, or employees “on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.”
Senate Bill 436 and its House companion 303 would also clarify rules regarding religious expression in school.
The bill ensures students can express religious beliefs in coursework, artwork, and other written assignments, as well as wear jewelry that has a religious message. It also allows students to organize prayer groups and other religious gatherings before, during and after school.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Dennis Baxley of Ocala and Democratic Representative Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville, faces opposition from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, Florida Citizens for Science, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Many believe it opens the door for students to force their religion on fellow students through class assignments, such as oral presentations.
Kara Gross, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU of Florida, believes religious minorities already feel alienated in school, and the bill, as written, just makes it more palpable and harder for them.
“To be clear, these types of bills aren’t about protecting religious freedom of expression,” said Gross.
“These bills are about sanctioning discrimination under the guise of protecting religious expression. It’s important to remember that religious freedom isn’t the license to discriminate against others, and the problem with these many of these bills is that they seek to establish and protect certain majority religions at the expense of certain minority religions.”
She said that the ACLU had no concerns with the House version of the bill. It uses language that balances the varying interests. However, the version that ended up passing uses language that many groups have concerns with.
“The sponsors of this bill disingenuously attempt to disguise this as being about religious freedom, but what it does is attempt to legalize the making of all school children a captive audience to specific religious messages, and that’s the concern.”