Florida lawmakers passed a bill that protects religious students, parents, and faculty from being punished by the school system for their religious beliefs.
SB 436, also known as the "Religious Liberties Act," will take effect on July 1.
"Part of what we're protecting is those basic rights for religious expression – which are protected free speech – and we're letting people know it doesn't stop at the property line of the school site," says Sen. Dennis Baxley, who sponsored the bill. "We owe our educators some clarity on this so it can be applied uniformly across the state and in a way that respects all faiths and people of no faith."
The landmark bill promotes equality between religious and secular individuals in the public school system.
The measure requires school districts to treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on a subject the same as the district treats a secular viewpoint. The bill also requires districts to allow students to wear religious clothing, accessories and jewelry to the extent secular items with symbols or messages are also allowed. Students must be allowed to pray or participate in religious activities or gatherings before, during and after school, to the same extent secular activities or clubs are allowed. Students are also allowed to express religious beliefs in coursework without discrimination, and this bill prohibits reward or penalty based on religious content where the assignment requires student viewpoint to be expressed.
The bill has similar standards for school faculty.
Regarding public school employees, the bill mandates they "may not be prevented from participating in religious activities on school grounds initiated by students prior to or after the school day, provided these activities are voluntary and do not conflict with the employee's other assignments. School districts must give religious groups the same access to school facilities and ability to announce or advertise meetings as given to secular groups."
Many see the bill as the first step toward holding school's accountable for how they treat their students.
"I commend the Florida legislators for overwhelmingly passing the Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act," said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. "Students on public school campuses already have constitutional protection of free speech, including religious speech. However, this legislation is certainly a positive move toward affirming and protecting the religious liberties of students, parents and employees in the Florida public schools. This also should help our clients, Child Evangelism Fellowship, have more positive experiences in Florida public schools when they request to hold Good News Club meetings on school property. But now we will hold the Florida school districts accountable for implementing this law," said Staver.