Jump to Navigation
Topical Breezes
Following the Currents that Guide Florida's Future
Will inspirational messages in school have moral and educational value, or infringe on the constitutional separation of church and state?
Frank Bentayou
Florida’s elected leaders debated and passed the bill allowing inspirational messages in public schools, and Gov. Rick Scott has signed it into law. But debate continues about the state’s official endorsement of students‘ rights to issue uncensored “inspirational messages” before school assemblies.
Charles Van Zant
member, Florida House of Representatives, Republican, District 21

Everybody in opposition and many in support have called this the school-prayer bill. It did start out that way, with the bill Sen. Gary Siplin and I wote last year. We did not get that one through the Florida Senate. It would have allowed student prayers in schools. 


This year, in the original bill the wording again used the words “prayer” and “benediction,” which directly indicated it was a school-prayer bill. We change that because we thought that wouldn’t go again this year. We got the attorneys in the Senate and House together and asked for language that would pass U.S. and Florida Constitutional muster. They came up with the words “inspirational message.” 


These messages are from the students themselves. It will allow them to deliver messages at school assemblies. The bill doesn’t say prayer. Any school board can adopt the policy for students to do this by themselves. The use of any inspirational message would be at the discretion of  the student volunteers, not from the school teachers and administrators. 


I ran the bill as a First Amendment issue. In our constitutions, we’re guaranteed freedom of speech. We teach children to speak, and this gives them the opportunity to speak out in school. It doesn’t mix church and state. It’s really why we have free speech in this country, so people can bring forth these issues freely. 


And the bill has no concern about what they talk about. They can talk about whatever they want. After all the billions and billions of dollars training teachers, and building school and buying buses and the billions we’ve put into classroom education, they should be able to say whatever they want to say. 


The students will have the opportunity to speak freely, and the audience will have the opportunity to provide feedback. Right thinking will be brought forward as long as we allow free dialogue. 


All the opposition I got from this bill is from people afraid that someone might use the words Jesus Christ or might actually pray. Many called what we’re doing a euphemism for school prayer. I would make the point that school prayer was abolished by ignorant judges 50 years ago. And that 50 years is a history lesson in what happens to a society that removes prayer. 


You can look at the many social ills in our country that have developed in those 50 years. Before we took out school prayer, the biggest problems in school were talking out of turn or chewing gum. Today, the problems are drug abuse, teen pregnancy, rape and assault. School problems speak for themselves. By allowing for inspirational messages, those problems will be addressed.

Rep. Jeff Clemens
member, Florida House of Representatives, Democrat, District 89

Even the bill’s sponsors admitted that this is an end run around the constitution. And they should search for a less objectionable way to introduce his values.

The bill’s sponsors are big school-prayer advocates. This is just an attempt to get around the constitution and around established case law. What’s inspirational to one persons may be offensive to someone else.

If we’re going to try to inspire students, that task is what teachers are for. they do it every day. And that school administrators and staff can’t edit these views every day makes a very big problem for schools and anybody concerned with public education. We have no ideas what these kids are going to say.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that students are not entitled to freedom of speech in school grounds. (In 1988, a court case involving Hazelwood East High School in the Hazelwood School District in St. Louis County, Mo., established that schools may censor school newspapers.) So, when you’re on public ground, you do not have the right to say whatever you want.

And, by the way, if students want to issue inspirational messages, they probably can do that. But this bill was specifically designed to subvert established case law.

We as legislators have much more to worry about getting people jobs instead of messing with already established constitutional rights. Students do not have an absolute right to freedom of speech. These so-called “inspirational messages” are really just a way to put a form of religious indoctrination into our public schools.

if parents want students to attend religions schools, they have every right. but the governor should protect the sanctity of public schools and their non-secular nature.

Rep. Martin Kiar
member, Florida House of Representatives, Democrat, District 97

What I’m concerned about is that the “inspiration message” bill’s sponsor said these kids could say anything they want. They could distort well-established historical facts. A child could preach that the Holocaust never occurred. And the way the bill is written, it says a teacher or other school personnel cannot monitor any inspirational message a child delivers.

I interpret that to mean that teachers, administrators or other employees cannot even be in the room as the child delivers an inspirational message. Because they can’t monitor that message, they would have no control over what’s said.

This circumstance would apply to first graders, second graders, third graders, any student. It also allows students to say pretty much whatever they want to say. The teacher or administrator may know the information is completely inaccurate, but they couldn’t stop the speaker from saying it.

I have a number of concerns. The speaker could have a misguided view of the world; they could wrongly disparage the United States. They could give incorrect information that would touch on a safety issue. A student could preach drug abuse. There’s nothing the school could do to stop that student.

Truth is really my biggest concern. There are no prohibitions in the bill over what students address. A student may have a warped idea of any number of topics and still present them as fact, including religious topics.

It certainly seems to be state-sponsored prayer -- and within students’ compulsory events, namely the classroom or compulsory assemblies.

The cases in which courts have upheld “inspirational” messages are not at compulsory events. With one prominent case, it was at a graduation ceremony. That is a non-compulsory event; students don’t have to go to it. But this bill would mean that students would be required to be there, in classrooms or assemblies. And in that setting, a student might elect to give a prayer.

That prayer may be different than others would approve of. Plus, member of a minority religion may never get a chance to deliver their prayer.

Howard Simon
Executive Director, ACLU of Florida

Would it be okay if your child were required to participate in prayers or religious activities at school that differed from your family’s religious heritage?  

Would you feel better knowing that the Legislature said it was permissible?

Thanks to our Legislature and governor, local school boards may now adopt policies authorizing school-sponsored religious messages at events for schoolchildren of all ages.

Courts in this country have consistently found that government-sponsored prayer or religious messages in schools violate not only of the separation of church and state, but an individuals’ religious liberty. The school prayer bill passed by the Florida legislature violates both.

The law, signed by Gov.  Rick Scott, will allow government-sponsored school prayer under the innocuous-sounding name of “inspirational messages” that students could vote to approve -– much as they vote now on prom queen. Though the law is careful not to use the word “prayer” and goes out of its way to keep the state from being accountable for it, supporters have been less careful about hiding their intent.

Sen. Gary Siplin told the Senate that the bill was intended to “bring prayer into our institutions.” Gov.  Scott has said several times that he doesn’t have a problem with the bill because, he is quoted, “I believe in prayer.”

But no matter how carefully the legislature chooses its words, it has no power to give school districts the authority to violate the Constitution.

Rights protected by the Constitution are there for a reason. No Florida child should be made to feel alienated and a second-class citizen at school because his or her family has a different faith from other students -– or worse, be compelled to participate in religious activities that go against their own or their family’s beliefs.

And when, inevitably, students have their Constitutional rights violated by school districts that implement the policy, litigation will be a certainty. The legislature had an opportunity to take responsibility for this reckless bill by covering the predictable legal bills of school districts that take up the legislature’s invitation to violate religious freedom.  Law makers declined.

There is so much freedom for individual and group religious expression in the public schools. Students have a right to pray individually or in groups, express their religious beliefs in reports and homework, distribute religious literature to their schoolmates, form religious clubs in secondary school, wear T-shirts with religious messages. All of this religious expression -– and more -- is a fundamental right protected by the Florida and U.S. Constitutions as well as federal laws. But the right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to compel a captive audience to listen or participate.

We don’t need government telling Florida students what kinds of religious messages they should hear.

Rev. Bob Coy
Pastor, Calvary Chapel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s largest church

First of all, free speech is not free; it will always cost you the hearing of someone else’s opinion. In an academic atmosphere, the joy of free speech is the chance to hear someone else’s point of view.  But I imagine some school children’s inspirational messages aren’t going to be inspiring at all, except to the kids who will exercise their inspiration.

As to these messages’ being a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, I would say this: The actual amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In the litigious society in which we live, everybody focuses on the first part and not the second: “the free exercise thereof.” And that’s what I feel Thomas Jefferson was putting his emphasis on in the first place. The message is that we’re going to stay neutral about what church your chose. The government is not going to take a position for or against a particular denomination.

But that emphasis on prohibiting the state from favoring one church over another is why we have more cases quieting religious expression than permitting its expression.

As to the value of inspirational messages, because we live in a country in which we enjoy religious freedom, we should have the right to express our religious feelings under all circumstances, not have to suppress them. What you don’t want to have is the government mandate that the state can’t permit a kid from expressing his religious feelings. how we ever thought the governing institution ought to quiet the religious expression from our heart, I don’t know.

In other words, the First Amendment is still burdened by the prohibiting of religious expression instead of its celebration. 


Comment on this Roundtable Using Facebook

by Dr. Radut.