The Republican-controlled state House on Wednesday endorsed a school prayer bill over the protests of several Jewish legislators, putting the controversial legislation in the hands of a reluctant and more moderate Senate.
While the Houses approval is a victory for school prayer advocates, it may be a short-lived one -- Senate leaders say they are unlikely to consider a bill that is sure to embroil them in a lengthy, emotional debate with barely more than a week left in the legislative session.
The bill (HB 1199) would allow prayer at high school graduations, athletic events and voluntary gatherings if school boards vote to offer students the option. But students would ultimately decide whether they want prayers at events.
The proposal, approved by an 84-29 vote, drew warnings from critics who argued the measure is unconstitutional, that prayer is a personal matter and should not be subject to majority rule. Students practicing a religion besides that observed by the majority, opponents contend, will be ostracized by organized prayer in public schools.
"Please let us remember prayer is a private matter between the individual or congregation and God," said Rep. Mark Weissman, Deerfield Beach. "It is simply not in the province of the Florida Legislature."
The Florida Legislature approved a prayer bill in 1996, but then-Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed it. The Christian Coalition of Florida and other conservative organizations have lobbied for prayer legislation in the past, but this is the first time the issue has arisen under Gov. Jeb Bush. A Republican who was supported by conservative Christian groups in his 1998 election, Bush has not taken an official position on the bill.
It may not matter.
No similar legislation has been filed in Senate and Senate Majority Leader Jim King, a Republican from Jacksonville, said there is "not a lot of sentiment" to take up the House bill with so little time left in the session.
"It is controversial and it is time-consuming and we have a ticking clock," King said. "And there are several court decisions recently that indicate the courts do not favor this," King said. "Im not optimistic."