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  • Can Students Deliver “Inspirational Messages” During School Events?

    The prayer-in-schools debate has recently revived itself in Florida, where a controversial bill has passed the house and senate and awaits the signature of Governor Rick Scott. The bill at issue would authorize school boards to create policies allowing students to deliver “inspirational messages” during any school event, including graduation, sporting events, and mandatory gatherings, such as school assemblies. Notably, the proposed bill specifically prohibits school officials from monitoring or approving students’ inspirational messages and prevents school official involvement all together. If Governor Scott signs the bill into law as expected, local school boards across Florida will have to decide whether to establish such policies and will struggle with the potential legal implications of “inspirational messages” given by students.

    Proponents of the “Inspirational Messages” Bill

    Free Speech Argument: Proponents argue that the bill is not about prayer, but about “inspirational messaging” and allowing students to exercise their free speech rights. Some, like House Sponsor Rep. Charles Van Zant, acknowledge that “this bill is not intended to advance or endorse any religion or belief, but rather to provide for the ceremonialization of school events.” The inspirational message can be any type of student-led message, such as the Pledge of Allegiance or an “I Have a Dream” speech. However, if a student chooses to cite a prayer or specific religion, it is his or her free speech right to do so.

    Moral/Ethical Argument: Proponents of the bill also argue that “when we took school prayer out of the classroom…disciplinary cases went up; we had a lot more school vandalism, and a lot more disrespect for schools, school personnel, teachers and principals.” There has also been an increase in drug use and violence among students since school-led prayer was removed from schools over five decades ago. Proponents of the bill believe that by reintroducing prayer into the school atmosphere, the moral and ethical decline of our students will cease and “the problems we have in school today will improve.”

    Opponents of the “Inspirational Messages” Bill

    Constitutional Argument: Opponents argue that the bill violates the constitutional principle of church-state separation and that an “inspirational message” is a mere euphemism for prayer. In support of their argument that this bill is “nothing short of a thinly veiled attempt to promote coercive prayer in school,” opponents cite Santa Fe School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000). In Santa Fe, the Supreme Court barred a school district from permitting student-led prayer before football games; noting that school led prayer is unconstitutional, regardless of whether the school prayer is led by students or school officials. Similar to how the Court found the school district’s policy in Santa Fe unconstitutional, opponents argue that the “inspirational messaging” bill at issue here is Florida’s latest attempt to authorize a similar, unconstitutional policy.

    Bullying and Harassment Argument: Opponents also argue that the bill is “unnecessary, pointless and divisive” because students already have the right to voluntarily pray silently at school as long as they are not disruptive. The bill is also unfair to students of minority religions who may be forced to listen to prayers of other majority religions at mandatory school events. The bill could subject students of minority religions to possible discrimination, bullying, and could lead to potentially offensive messages that could entangle school districts in costly litigation.

    Given the vast array of constitutional questions and the potential legal mess the bill could create, school officials are rightly viewing this bill with caution. If your institution has questions or concerns about this topic and you would like further information, please email Cynthia Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at 516.357.3753. **A special thanks to Hayley Dryer, a third-year law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, for helping with this post.