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Religious Freedom Bills Move Forward

Kim Danoher

A bill aimed at protecting displays of religious faith in public schools passed the Senate on nearly party-line vote Thursday, while a more-limited version moved toward the House floor.The Senate voted 23-13 to approve its bill (SB 436), after a sometimes-emotional debate. Sen. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, joined Republicans in voting for the legislation.

Supporters of the legislation said it would largely reaffirm court rulings on First Amendment rights while signaling to school districts what should and shouldn't be allowed. They also rejected suggestions that the bill was intended to favor some religious convictions at the expense of others.

"This isn't protecting a faith," said Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the bill. "It's protecting all people's freedom to express their hearts."

The proposal would extend protection to religious activities and organizations and seek to prevent discrimination against students or school employees based on their faith. It would also require school districts to approve a "limited public forum" policy for student speakers.

Supporters of the legislation say students have, for example, been told they can't use a religious figure in a paper about role models or can't bring Bibles to school.

"It's time to stop persecuting students for their religious beliefs when grading assignments, or limiting the reading texts just because they may contain religious material," said Shawn Frost, president of the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, at a House Education Committee meeting where that chamber's bill was approved Thursday.

Opponents, though, portrayed the bills as an unnecessary measure that could lead to some children being ostracized if they don't join student-led religious displays.

"I believe that there is already time for prayer and expression, and I don't believe that isolated incidents should then be an impetus for a law that really will create, I believe, more misunderstanding than understanding," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

Added Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale: "The right to religious belief is not being taken away if we don't pass this bill."

But while the Senate debate over the legislation has been polarizing, the version of the bill in the normally more partisan House has moved through quickly and largely unopposed.

The House Education Committee vote Thursday was unanimous — though three Democrats weren't there to vote — following similar approval at a subcommittee. The House measure (HB 303) is also sponsored by a pair of Democrats: Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville and Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes.

That version, though, does not include the requirement for school districts to approve a "limited public forum" policy for student speakers. Such policies would give student speakers more leeway in their comments at school events.

Baxley, who said he used the original House language for his bill, suggested after the Senate vote Thursday that the difference could make reaching an agreement problematic if the House insisted.

"In the process, they kind of watered theirs down a little bit, and we really like the constraints that were in the bill to make it function," Baxley said. "Because otherwise, I don't know there's anything being done."

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