Florida bill on 'inspirational messages' in schools advances

TALLAHASSEE, Florida Fri Mar 2, 2012 5:05pm EST

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida students will be allowed to offer an "inspirational message" at graduations, pep rallies and other school events under a bill on its way to the desk of the state's Republican Governor Rick Scott.

The measure was approved on Thursday following lengthy debate in both chambers of Florida's Republican-controlled legislature.

The bill lets local school boards adopt standards permitting students to lead public prayer at any school event, even mandatory gatherings like student commencement. But any prayer would have to be initiated and delivered by students, with no involvement by faculty or staff.

A spokesman for Scott said on Friday he had not yet reviewed the bill.

Votes in both chambers were largely along party lines. Passage came over the objections of civil libertarians and some Jewish members, who said the measure has the potential to subject religious and ethnic minorities to spiritual messages they don't agree with but will be pressured to endure.

"I send my kids to school," said Representative Luis Garcia, a Miami Beach Democrat. "I instruct them in my religion. I don't want to subject them to someone else's while they're in school."

But backers of the bill said it was not intended to push a certain religious view.

"The purpose of education is to inspire, not just to get a job but to inspire our children to virtue to wisdom to reach beyond what they believe they are capable of themselves," said Representative Mike Bileca, a Miami Republican.

"This is not about prayer," said Fred Costello, another Republican lawmaker. "But I hope many of our students choose to use their time for an inspirational message to offer a prayer, Whether that be to God, to Jesus, to Mohammad to Buddha or the Great Spirit, I don't care."

But some critics said the "inspirational message" could go off on tangents that backers of the bill do not expect. School officials, in those cases, would be powerless to step in.

"A speaker could advocate for drug abuse," said Martie Kiar, a House Democrat. "They can say anything they want. And that's what scares me."

(Editing by Tom Brown and Vicki Allen)

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