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Noah Fitzgerel Headshot

Keep Religion Out of Public Schools

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It seems as if the Florida legislature has crossed a dangerous line. When Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) proposed S.B. 98, not only did he propose to impede on the religious expression of Florida public school students, but also upon the separation between church and state that I, along with many political advocacy organizations, have worked so passionately to safeguard. Even as a proud Virginian, I take this political stunt personally.

This violation of such a precious separation came in the form of a call to allow Florida school boards to permit student-led prayer. The passage of such a bill, thus, would procure many problems for Floridian students and school officials alike.

S.B. 98 would allow for Floridian schools, after being given permission from their respective school boards, to enable students to lead in prayer. The contents of the prayer would be contingent upon the results of a vote that each respective school would hold.

Am I the only person who is concerned about this potential?

The issuance of such a bill would enable students to endorse a prayer in the name of a single religion. This would inherently be at the cost of students who adhere to religious traditions of lesser popularity. In this regard, S.B. 98 would accomplish, first and foremost, the establishment of exclusionary religious practices in Florida's public school system.

Moreover, the content of S.B. 98 violates the first amendment of the Constitution. As the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in School Dist. Of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) and Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), mass school prayer in public schools, voluntary or mandatory, violates the Establishment Clause.

In other words, as Americans United for Separation of Church and State has written, it is not appropriate to vote for the contents of a school prayer as students might vote for officers in class government. In doing so, the administrations of such schools explicitly endorse, in all sense of the word, the creeds of a certain religion over another.

However, the confrontation of a bill with legal precedent does not truly combat the philosophy behind it.

This bill is simply an iteration of an uncomfortable political movement that encourages the marginalization of minority religions in the name of a majority.

In a state such as Florida, where 82% of citizens report adhering to any form of Christianity, it is obvious that the contents of a school prayer legalized under S.B. 98 would contain a Christian leaning. For all of the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and other minority religious groups residing in Florida, such prayer is unfamiliar, but more importantly, potentially slighting. In fact, as many often forget when arguing for the perpetuation of the separation of church and state, many Christians, as well, would be opposed to allowing those of their own faith to publically endorse their religion over others under the permission of such a bill.

As a Reform Jew, I could not imagine being subjugated daily to Christian prayers led by my own peers, or feeling as if I need to leave the room in order to maintain my personal faith. Under the auspice of S.B. 98, many Floridian students would be unnecessarily placed in such a situation.

Simply put, it is imperative that politicians cease to endorse religion in the name of religion. Doing so casts the role of faith, which is an important element in the daily lives of many Americans, in a negative light.

Luckily, several wonderful political organizations such as the Interfaith Alliance, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty work to fight such legislation every day. However, it is important for Americans, as individuals, to relate to politicians that valuing their own respective faiths does not mean that it is necessary to do so at the cost of others. Such actions would upset the work that generations of Americans have executed to protect themselves from the governmental endorsement of religion.

This, I believe, would be quite shameful.