Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act

1/25/2017

Below is a copy of the email I sent to the following people regarding Florida HB 303 and SB 436:

Representative Kimberly Daniels – House Bill sponsor
Senator Dennis Baxley – Senate Bill sponsor
This is concerning House Bill 303 and Senate Bill 436, “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act.”

We support free speech and religious freedom for everyone, students included. However, after having read the bill, we are concerned about the direct conflict this has with U.S. Code 4071, “Denial of equal access prohibited”, commonly referred to as the Equal Access Act (EAA), as well as the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution and the Florida Constitution, Article 1 Section 3.

While much of HB 303 and SB 436 agrees with the EAA, the involvement of employees with a student group is in direct conflict. EAA states: “employees or agents of the school or government are present at religious meetings only in a non-participatory capacity;”. These bills, in Paragraph 4(a)1. (b)1. states “A school district may not prevent school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students at reasonable times before or after the school day if such activities are voluntary and do not conflict with the responsibilities or assignments of such personnel.” There is no avoiding the inherently sectarian nature of religious expression. All of it is grounded in differently evolved religious, national, and social traditions. Each religion proclaims its own inerrancy and superiority to all the others. This cannot help but to create disunity, dissension, and strife as it has so often in the past.

Since HB 303 and SB 436 applies to all schools in a district, how do you propose we protect younger students from being unduly influenced by a teacher? When a scientologist, Satanist, or someone from a cult or “unpopular” religion encourages students to start a club, how does your bill address the potential for abuse of the trust students have placed in that authority figure? It seems all too easy for an employee to “take over” a student organization, whether intentionally or not, simply because of the relationship that students have with a teacher or staff person. Adults are often viewed as guides in many aspects of life. Those adults moved by religious feelings may often be disposed to dispense the “superior” values of their religion in a fully beneficent way in their own view. If the adult in question is a teacher, is this not going to pressure students in their class to feel required to participate in that teacher’s openly professed religion, lest they fear being “penalized” by the teacher for not being part of his/her group?

The social values and individual virtues promoted by the traditional secular framework of our schools seem wholly adequate to inculcate the necessary attributes to become a valued and worthwhile citizen. The founders of our country seemed to appreciate the fact that religions is mostly a matter of private discretion, and ought not to be the subject of government selection.

The current federal law seems quite adequate in giving students the rights addressed by this bill, without complicating the matter with employee involvement. Please consider either changing the language of HB 303 and SB 436 to follow the Federal and State constitutions or withdrawing the bill.