The Florida Senate Committee on Judiciary, chaired by Senator Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, passed Senate Bill 436, Religious Expression in Public Schools, on Tuesday.
The legislation creates the “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act,” and specifies that a school district may not discriminate against a student, parent, or school personnel on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.
“Students of any faith, or no faith, have a right to free speech,” said Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “The government should not impose a religion, but all too often we see the other extreme where we are taking away people’s right to free speech and their right to practice their faith in a way they believe is appropriate. This legislation makes it clear that we support the constitutional rights of Freedom and Speech and Freedom of Religion for everyone associated with our public school system.”
“Students should not have to surrender their constitutional rights at the school house door. Neither should teachers, administrators or parents,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, one of the bill's sponsors. “Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion are fundamental to our way of life as Americans and this legislation ensures that we protect these critical rights in our public schools.”
Senate Bill 436 authorizes students to express religious beliefs in written and oral assignments, free from discrimination, said the Senate office in a written statement. Students may also wear clothing, accessories, and jewelry that display a religious message or symbol to the same extent secular types of clothing, accessories, and jewelry that display messages or symbols are permitted in public school dress codes. Further, students may pray, or engage in and organize religious activities before, during, and after the school day, to the same extent student engagement in secular activity or expression, and the organization of secular activities and groups are permitted.
The legislation requires a school district to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and specifies that a school district may not prevent school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are student-initiated at reasonable times before or after the school day.
Districts must allow a religious group access to the same school facilities for assembling as a secular group without discrimination. Additionally, the bill requires school districts to adopt a policy that establishes a limited public forum for student speakers at any school event at which a student is to speak publicly. The legislation also requires the Florida Department of Education to develop and publish on its website a model policy regarding a limited public forum and the voluntary expression of religious viewpoints by students and school personnel in public schools. The model policy must be adopted and implemented by each district school board.