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Legislation Promoting Religious Freedom In Florida's Public Schools Moving Through Legislature

Nick Evans

Florida lawmakers are voting on legislation Thursday that would allow more religious expression in public schools. Bill sponsors said not allowing students and school employees to talk about their religions violates the First Amendment. But critics say these bills force Christian beliefs on others.

Religious freedom laws have popped up before in Florida. The state passed a religious freedom law modeled after the one Congress approved in 1993. But lately, more states have been considering religious belief legislation related to gay marriage issues. Indiana, Mississippi and Georgia all passed similar laws in 2015 protecting company employees who deny goods and services to same-sex couples based on employees’ religious objections.

Credit Nick Evans / WFSU News

Last year, it was Florida’s turn. The state approved legislation blocking clergy from being sued if they decline to marry people against their religious beliefs. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Equality Florida said at the time the pastor protection bill was insulting to LGBT people.

“We don’t support this bill in its current form," he said. "We removed our opposition because the sponsors worked with us to make these clarifications and to agree that for the very least this session we were not going to expand beyond its current scope to hurt LGBT families. I think next session all bets are off.”

The religious liberties legislation doesn’t mention issues relating to same sex rights, but Equality Florida still opposes the bills sponsored by Democratic Rep. Kim Daniels and Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley. The group said it opens the door to discrimination against religious minorities, LGBTQ people and non-religious people.

Kara Gross with ALCU of Florida says the legislation is unnecessary because the Constitution already protects religious freedom.

“These bills are about sanctioning discrimination under the guise of protecting religious expression and they’re not about protecting discrimination based on religion,” she said.

Both Baxley's and Daniels’ legislation would allow public school students to wear religious symbols, talk about their religious beliefs and organize religious groups and clubs before during and after school. Students would also be free to express religious views in written and oral assignments without being treated differently.

Baxley, who used to lead the Christian Coalition of Florida, said taking religion out of schools is a violation of the First Amendment. He believes the separation of church and state is preventing students and school employees from practicing their faith.

He argues his proposal applies to all religions, including faiths who follow Sharia law, a type of Islamic law based on religious beliefs.

“Quite frankly I think individual students need the advent of this expression in our society and many of the people of faith do feel like there’s been a chilling effect and almost a sterilization in the environment,” he said.

But his legislation has received some pushback from fellow senators. Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemons questions whether there is a chilling effect.

“If you’re looking for a justification for this bill, I would like to know what a good example of that chilling effect would be,” he asked Baxley.

But Sen. Baxley declined to provide specifics, saying he didn’t want to focus on any one incident. These religious freedom laws come at a time when Pew Research Center reports people in the U.S. are becoming less religious. But Pam Olsen of the Family Prayer Network said religious liberties are under attack.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Sarah Mueller is the first recipient of the WFSU Media Capitol Reporting Fellowship. She’ll be covering the 2017 Florida legislative session and recently earned her master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield. Sarah was part of the Illinois Statehouse press corps as an intern for NPR Illinois in 2016. When not working, she enjoys playing her yellow lab, watching documentaries and reading memoirs.