Florida Governor Signs Law Defending Educators’ Right to Witness

The Associated Press reports that Gov. Charlie Crist signed a school-speech bill Friday that prevents schools from “infringing on the First Amendment freedoms of teachers, staff or students unless they sign a waiver.”

What? One can’t sign away one’s First Amendment rights.


The tersely written legislation says in its entirety:

Protection of school speech—district school boards, administrative personnel, and instructional personnel are prohibited from taking affirmative action, including, but not limited to, the entry into any agreement that infringes, or waives, the rights or freedoms afforded to instructional personnel, school staff, or students by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, in the absence of the express written consent of any individual whose constitutional rights would be impacted by such infringement or waiver.

An earlier version of the bill would have permitted prayer at non-compulsory school events, including assemblies and sports events, but that provision was taken out before a final vote.

Of course, there is more to this story and this legislation wasn’t written in a vacuum. The new law, which goes into effect July 1, stems from the incredibly messy fight taking place in the Santa Rosa County School District in northwest Florida. As part of a federal-court approved settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union last year, the school board agreed to stop public prayers at school events, and the district and school officials were “permanently prohibited from promoting, advancing, endorsing, participating in or causing prayers during or in conjunction with school events.”

In January 2009, principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman were accused of violating the consent decree when “Lay asked Freeman to offer a prayer of blessing during a school-day luncheon for the dedication of a new field house at Pace High School.

“Freeman complied with the request and offered the prayer at the event. It appears this was a school-sponsored event attended by students, faculty and community members.”

In response, the Christian Educators Association International filed a motion to intervene in order to overturn the consent decree, arguing it amounted to a violation of teachers and administrators’ First Amendment free exercise rights to practice their religion with prayer.

Noting that the battle has been a polarizing force in the community, a judge ruled in February that CEAI did not have standing and did not demonstrate that the consent decree would have a “chilling affect” on its members’ religious observances.

In a news release, Liberty Counsel, Liberty University’s legal arm, said in light of the new law it will now file a motion requesting the court overturn the consent decree.

Basically the law says that, unless they sign a waiver, teachers and staff can’t be legally required to stop leading school prayer and proselytizing to students. I can’t believe this won’t go unchallenged. I have no doubt that those evangelical educators believe their First Amendment rights were being infringed by the consent decree. After all, don’t hide your light under a bushel. But school should not be a bully pulpit. As the courts have maintained, students have the right to go to school for an education free of teachers’ attempts to indoctrinate them to their religious beliefs.