A new law governing religious expression in public schools took effect July 1, and educators are bracing for the impact when students start class in August.
The statute, Religious Expression in Public Schools, restates laws already on the books, clarifying that students have the right to engage in religious activity during school hours and that they may make religious references in class and school work so long as they do not disrupt class time. The new law, however, also says Florida schools must provide a forum for students’ religious activities. The law’s stipulation barring discrimination against any form of religious discrimination has some educators fearful.
“There are teachers who do teach science but who don’t believe in evolution,” said Brandon Haught, a high school science teacher Volusia County told the Tampa Bay Times. “This could embolden them to say, ‘The law is on my side’ and start covering topics such as creationism or intelligent design in their classes.”
Haught’s concerns were echoed by David Barkey, religious freedom and southeastern area counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, who said that the law may provide an open door for teachers to espouse religious views to students in the classroom. The inclusion of religious references in students’ work also worried Haught, who said that it was unclear whether a teacher’s critical grading and challenging of work containing religious views would count as discrimination.
“I don’t think the unintended consequences were well thought out,” Haught said to the Tampa Bay Times. “I feel sorry for the school board attorneys who have to deal with this.”
School boards, however, have already begun preparing to accommodate the new law. Three schools districts have begun to modify, or prepare to modify, their existing student policies in order to comply. While future conflict over implementation of the law may arise, the law should actually help schools operate more smoothly in relation to religious liberty issues, according to Mat Staver, chairman of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel.
“It really doesn’t set forth any new law. In fact, it restates existing law,” said Staver. Still, he said, “Having this in the statute will be very beneficial. Schools don’t want to be sued. They’ve got better things to do. And people don’t want their religious rights violated.”
The implementation of this law comes amidst a backlash from students and parents against Florida schools’ various attempts to quell any religious expression for fear of liability. A Hillsborough County school, for example, tried to prevent students from wearing Christian symbols like crosses and rosaries, while football coaches at Pasco County high schools were told they could not pray before games with their teams as that could be viewed as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Supporters of the law believe that it will make clear to what extent students and teachers can express religion at school without violating the Establishment Clause, and will uphold the rights guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause.
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