[Tallahassee, FL] Gov. Rick Scott signed several bills on Friday, one of which – the so-called school prayer bill – opens up the state and local municipalities to court challenges going forward.
That bill – SB 98 – is certainly the most controversial of the bunch, as it would allow student prayer at mandatory school events, prompting several groups opposed to the law to warn school districts against implementing it.
The measure signed by Scott would pave the way for local districts to approve policies allowing students to decide whether to have another student deliver an “inspirational message” at school events. Scott signed the bill without comment.
Supporters say the measure would simply reaffirm the right of Florida students under the First Amendment to proclaim their religious beliefs without fear of being restricted by government.
They said the country was in danger of becoming un-moored from the religious traditions that guide the nation.
“When we took school prayer … out of school, it’s clearly documented that school discipline – disciplinary cases went up, that we had a lot more school vandalism, that we had a lot more disrespect for schools, including the physical plant as well as school personnel, teachers and principals,” Rep. Charles Van Zant (R-21/Keystone Heights), the House sponsor of the bill, said during a committee hearing in February.
But opponents of the bill said it would lead to potentially offensive messages and could ensnare school districts in costly lawsuits.
While supporters are largely viewed as trying to open up a channel for student prayer, both sides in the debate agree it could also allow messages that include Holocaust denial, racially-charged speeches, uncomfortable beliefs of some fringe religions or endorsements of sex and drugs, among many other topics.
Rep. Charles Van Zant sponsored the school prayer bill
On Friday, the ACLU of Florida, the Anti-Defamation League and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State each separately issued warnings to local school districts that going ahead with an inspirational message policy could subject them to costly legal challenges.
Sunshine Slate recently reported on a plea by three leaders of American United – all three of them clergymen, by the way – asking for Scott not to sign the bill.
“Legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It’s wrong to subject students to coercive prayer and proselytizing. Our public schools should respect diversity, not undermine it.”
School Voucher Bill Signed, As Well As Voyeurism Measure, Others
A measure that would raise the cap on the state’s school voucher system, funded by tax credits to corporations who contribute to scholarship funds, was approved Friday by Gov. Scott.
The bill (HB 859) would increase the amount of credits available for the 2012-13 school year to $229 million, up more than $50 million for the current school year and more than $10 million over a scheduled increase to just under $219 million.
The measure also loosens restrictions on which students can take advantage of the program, getting rid of the requirement that students in second through fifth grade have to have attended a public school the year before they accept a scholarship.
Also freshly inked: A bill that would increase penalties for video voyeurism against a minor, making it a second degree felony instead of a third degree felony and requiring those convicted of it to register as six offenders.
In addition to the school prayer measure, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle’s child porn bill was signed
The bill (HB 437) by Rep. Eric Eisnaugle (R-40/Orlando) also would allow prosecutors to charge defendants in child pornography cases with a separate crime for each victim in a photo or video, instead of with just one crime per file.
The governor also signed a bill (HB 667), which would allow people who kill someone in a crash while fleeing police to be charged with first or second degree murder instead of third degree murder.
The measure was inspired by the death of Hernando County Deputy John Mecklenburg, a 35-year-old father of two, who was killed in a crash while pursuing a fleeing suspect.
Scott also signed legislation (SB 198) that expands the number of provider companies that can participate in the retirement program for university professors and administrators. Currently there are five firms allowed to participate in the retirement program, and 80% of the management of the program’s roughly $200 million under investment is managed by just one firm, TIAA-CREF.
Scott also put his John Hancock on bills protecting the identity of people who donate to performing arts centers (SB 570), a public records exemption for biomedical research peer review materials (SB 1856) and a public records exemption for donors to the Old Capitol museum (SB 374).
And for you synthetic drug users and sellers: A bill increasing the number of variations of synthetic drugs that are illegal was also signed into law Friday by Scott. The measure (HB 1175) was needed, backers said, because drug dealers change the chemical compounds of drugs once certain chemicals are outlawed.
“This law bans dangerous new synthetic drugs and will clear Florida’s store shelves of substances that are harming young people,” stated Attorney General Pam Bondi. “We will continue to crack down on drug makers who are attempting to skirt state law and endangering lives. I applaud Governor Scott for signing this vital public safety bill into law.”
By: Brandon Larrabee/The News Service of Florida
Lead image: Governor Scott and First Lady Ann Scott visit with children at the Florida State Fair in Tampa (photo: Gov.’s Office)