Legislation Protects Constitutional Rights In Public Schools
The Florida Senate today passed Senate Bill 436, Religious Expression in Public Schools, by Senator Dennis Baxley (R-Lady Lake). 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.
“Freedom of Religion is a central right protected by our Constitution. 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,” said Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart). “Students of any faith, or no faith, have a right to free speech. By passing this legislation today, we are taking the steps necessary to protect this important constitutional right of public school students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.”
“Students should not have to surrender their constitutional rights or their religious beliefs at the school house door. Neither should teachers, administrators or parents,” said Senator Baxley. “For many Floridians, instilling faith in their religious convictions is a central component of child rearing and family life. Students should not be prevented from discussing these convictions with their peers, or incorporating religious beliefs in their attire, assignments, and extracurricular activities. 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 taxpayer-funded public schools.”
Senate Bill 436 authorizes students to express religious beliefs in written and oral assignments, free from discrimination. 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.