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Senate poised to vote on 'Religious Liberties' bill

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The Florida Senate moved forward Tuesday with a bill that supporters say would strengthen protections for expressions of religious faith in public schools.

The "Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act" (SB 436) could come up for a vote as soon as Thursday after advancing through a routine procedural stage.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, would extend protection to religious activities and organizations and seek to prevent discrimination against students or school employees based on their faith.

Unlike a House counterpart, the Senate version of the bill also would require school districts to approve a "limited public forum" policy for student speakers.

But some critics have questioned whether the bill would "open the door for domestic hate groups and other extremists that hide behind religious expression," in the words of Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando. Baxley, R-Ocala, dismissed those concerns, saying it would instead give students a "moral compass" that could lessen tension.

"We spend an awful lot of time teaching students the 'how,' and there's very little opportunity for them to capture the 'why.' ... We protect all kinds of speech, and it shouldn't be just that we protect filthy speech but that we actually protect inspirational and encouraging speech. So I think it will actually diminish hate, and people will find that they have much more in common," he said.

Some senators also suggested that the legislation might be unnecessary. "What does this bill do that the First Amendment doesn't currently do?" asked Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

Baxley said the bill was needed to clear up any misunderstandings about the religious freedoms of students and employees.