New Florida Law Protects Religious Expression in Public Schools

Published September 8, 2017

Senate Bill 436, the Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act, “requires that students be allowed to pray or participate in religious activities or gatherings before, during and after school, to the same extent secular activities or clubs are allowed,” the Florida Department of Education (DOE) website states. “Employees may not be prevented from participating in religious activities on school grounds initiated by students prior to or after the school day, provided these activities are voluntary and do not conflict with the employee’s other assignments. The bill requires school districts to give religious groups the same access to school facilities and ability to announce or advertise meetings as given to secular groups.”

SB 436 also requires school district employees to evaluate students’ work with the same standards regardless of whether religious belief is expressed, and they must allow students to wear religious clothing and accessories. School districts must also adopt a policy “creating a limited public forum for student speakers at school events where students speak publicly and cannot discriminate against voluntary religious expression by a student on an otherwise permissible subject,” the DOE website states.

Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed SB 436 into law in June, and it went into effect in July.

‘Grown Out of a Backlash’

Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare studies at Reason Foundation, says multiple violations of religious liberty in Florida schools prompted lawmakers to pass the bill.

“Florida’s Religious Expression in Public Schools Act has partly grown out of a backlash to a few schools’ misguided interpretations of the separation of church and state, such as public schools prohibiting a student’s right to wear religious symbols such as crosses or rosaries, or students who are not allowed to wear Native American regalia or other religious attire at graduation,” Snell said.  

‘There Is a Bias’

Students testified during the committee hearings on SB 436, recounting incidents such as having been prohibited from wearing crosses outside their shirts in class. A valedictorian who acknowledged his faith in his speech off-script said he was nearly refused his diploma, and multiple students reported schools deeming religion unacceptable as subject matter for school papers.

Shawn Frost, president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, says such discrimination has been common in Florida schools.

“There is a bias toward promoting secular humanism that we believed to be outside the First Amendment rights of students,” Frost said. “Our legislative task force decided to support the bill when we saw that there was not only a need for the clarifying policy, but also bipartisan support in the House.”

‘Clarifying Language Is Necessary’

Frost says the arguments of SB 436 opponents demonstrated why the bill was needed.

“Criticisms of this bill varied from it being ‘unnecessary’ as a restatement of First Amendment rights, to it being a violation of the Establishment Clause [by] blurring the lines between church and state,” Frost said. “I believe that two members of the same liberal group even made these seemingly conflicting criticisms in the same meeting, which proves that clarifying language was necessary due the broad spectrum of understanding of the current laws.”

Opposition leaders argued religious liberty cases should be handled individually in the courts, but the problem is too widespread, Frost says.

“Fiscal conservatives know the direct cost to districts for this type of litigation easily rises into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, even when successful,” Frost said. “They also further divide the community while diverting resources from the classroom to the courtroom.”

‘Promote More School Choice’

Snell says more education choice would make such debates unnecessary.

“The better legal approach to these religious controversies is to promote more school choice, where school funding follows the child and is neutral to specific religions, as was decided in the recent Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court Case,” Snell said. “Instead of a one-size-fits-all school policy, parents should have more discretion over how they want their children to experience their religious liberty in a school setting.”

Frost says SB 436 upholds students’ constitutional rights.

“Thanks to this bill, it is now made very clear that our constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment rights do not end at the entrance to the school building,” Frost said.  

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.