A proposal to permit students to pray or deliver "inspirational messages" at school events was approved by a Senate committee Wednesday, over strong objections from groups dedicated to protecting religious freedoms.
Not everyone opposed the bill, including those at Celebration Church on the Southside, where praying is a daily routine.
The same could soon happen at football games or other school events with the passage of Senate bill 98.
The bill allows school boards to adopt rules allowing the messages, which could include prayer, at "non-compulsory" school events, such as graduations or football games. The bill says school personnel may not participate or influence decisions over what type of message is delivered.
"I think it's a very powerful place to advance the gospel in not a forceful way, but here is the hope of Jesus Christ in a loving, non-imposing type of way," said Josh Turner a pastor at Celebration Church.
Turner said students need prayer and inspiration with so many bad things going on in the world.
But the American Atheists group said the bill only opens school districts up to lawsuits.
"Someone's going to file a lawsuit, whether it's us or the ACLU, and I don't see how the Florida Senate has the money to fight these lawsuits," said Gregory McDowell, of American Atheists.
McDowell added that public prayer would ostracize some students.
The American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in on the bill Wednesday. In a statement, the ACLU said, "The school system does not have the right to subject another person's beliefs on their students. People should pray on their own time."
"We must guard against the promotion or endorsement of one particular set of religious beliefs over others," said Ron Bilbao, a spokesman for ACLU. By letting students choose the type of message, it "submits religious expression to a popular vote," he said.
But those supporting school prayer said it is exactly what students need when they are faced with so many obstacles that could take them off track.
"You see so many students going through so many things. Suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers, there's depression, drugs, alcohol abuse, and often students don't even know they're looking for Jesus," Turner said.
On Wednesday, only Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who is Jewish, voted against the measure, in the Senate PreK-12 Committee. The measure still has several committee stops before going to the full Senate.
Bill sponsor Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, said he wants to "formalize" school prayer policies to "allow students to get together to have some benediction or invocation" during some school events.
But opponents to the bill say that by putting a policy in place that supports school prayer, it could run afoul of the state and federal constitutions, which expressly prohibit public institutions from supporting religion.
This is the third year Siplin has suggested this bill, and last year it did not come up for a vote in the Senate or House. This year, Siplin said it has a better prognosis. "I think it will pass," he said. "The (House Speaker) appreciates prayer and the (Senate) President appreciates prayer."