A controversial measure allowing students to deliver "inspirational messages" at public school events passed the House Education Committee on Monday, leaving it one stop away from what could be the final vote on the House floor.
The bill (SB 98) passed the committee on a party-line, 9-6 vote, with Republicans arguing the measure would boost freedom of religion and speech while Democrats said it could become a vehicle for divisive messages and hate speech.
The measure -- sponsored in the House by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights -- does not specifically reference prayer at school events, but would allow that as a kind of inspirational message, along with just about anything else. Adults would have no say over what could be said by students under the bill.
Van Zant acknowledged it would allow any type of speech – but admitted it was aimed, in part, at protecting students who want to give a prayer and have felt they've been unable to do so publicly.
"When we took school prayer ... out of school, it's clearly documented that school discipline - disciplinary cases went up, that we had a lot more school vandalism, that we had a lot more disrespect for schools, including the physical plant as well as school personnel, teachers and principals," Van Zant said.
Still, he said, the primary reason for the legislation was to allow students to exercise their free-speech rights.
But critics argued the measure would instead leave students as young as kindergartners in charge of what is inspirational, since teachers are not allowed to have a roll in preparing or delivering the message.
"What inspires me may not inspire you," said Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.
Bullard and other Democratic members said that there was nothing to prevent a student from presenting a racially-charged inspirational message, even one that contained racial slurs. Bullard grew emotional as he recounted his own experience when a schoolmate called him a racial slur when he was in elementary school.
"What this bill does is open up the possibility of messages of hate," he said. "Whether you like to believe it or not, hate is inspirational."
Republicans argued that allowing students to air views that others find offensive in an open forum might actually prove beneficial.
"It is better that some young man or woman espouses those views in public so the issues can be properly debated," said Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness.
But Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, said she wasn't convinced it would spark a healthy debate.
"It may start a fight," she said.
Other groups, meanwhile, were worried that the danger lies in the potential for infringing on the rights of other students, who would be forced to listen to prayers or messages they don't agree with.
"What would happen in your school district if the prayer was to Allah, to Buddha, to HaShem -- which is how we say 'God' in Judaism -- or another faith in which children were not brought up?" asked David Barkey of the Anti-Defamation League of Florida.
Republicans countered that not allowing students to voice their beliefs itself amounted to a form of discrimination.
"That tolerance goes both ways," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.
The measure now heads to the House Judiciary Committee. If it clears that panel and the House floor without an amendment, it would go to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.