Ronda Storms & Prayer in Florida Schools

Like creationism, the school prayer issue keeps coming back. That’s not surprising, as the same people with the same theocratic motivations are usually pushing both types of legislation.

We first wrote about this in February of 2009: Florida’s Ronda Storms Wants Prayer in School. It was about trying to undo a court ruling in Florida’s Santa Rosa County: This is the court’s ruling, which has generated all the heat in today’s story.

That bill died, but in July of 2009 we wrote School Prayer in Florida: It’s Back! That was about a bill pre-filed by Brad Drake in the Florida House, HB 31. Drake’s bill would “allow school boards to permit prayer at a non-mandatory school event, such as an assembly, sporting event or other school-related activity.”

A month ago we wrote School Prayer in Florida: March 2010 Update. Drake’s bill had been reported favorably out of the committee on Pre-K-12 Policy, and also by the Civil Justice & Courts Policy Committee.

There was also a companion bill in the Florida Senate: SB 1580. It had been referred to the Education Pre-K – 12 and to the Judiciary committees. The Senate’s Education Pre-K – 12 Committee includes some familiar names from former creationist legislative attempts: Ronda Storms and Stephen Wise.

That’s where things were a month ago. The legislative session is scheduled to end on 30 April 2010, so the clock is running.

Now, in the Tallahassee Democrat, the only daily newspaper in Florida’s state capitol, we read Senate panel OKs school prayer measure. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

With blistering criticism for civil libertarians and some harsh words about an “overreaching” religious climate in Northwest Florida schools, a Senate panel on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a watered-down school-prayer bill.

The bill is a response to a 2008 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against Santa Rosa schools, one that led to a consent order and a veteran high school principal facing contempt charges. The measure would not affect the existing agreement.

That’s the same court order we wrote about in February of 2009. Let’s read on, as the newspaper quotes a tale of woe told by the principal of the school in Santa Rosa County:

“I’ll speak about what the consent decree did to our faculty. They stopped wearing crosses and they put away their Bibles,” Pace High School Principal Frank Lay told panel members. “Our students didn’t understand their rights. It was just turmoil in our school.

We’ve read the court’s ruling, so don’t believe a word of what the principal says. Let’s continue:

Lay told panel members he faced a six-month sentence, a $10,000 fine and the loss of his retirement benefits after he asked the school athletic director, Robert Freeman, to “bless the food” at a luncheon at Pace High for school personnel and booster club members instrumental in helping get a new fieldhouse. The school’s culinary class prepared the meal.

If any of that happened, it sounds to us like an appropriate response to a deliberate violation of the court order. Here’s more:

The bill [which just passed in a Senate committee] would prohibit school districts in the future from entering into an 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.”

An earlier reference to school prayer was scrubbed from the bill in a compromise.

If that got scrubbed, then what’s the point? Moving along:

That change makes the bill unnecessary, argued ACLU public policy director Courtenay Strickland. The first amendment rights of teachers and students can’t be trumped by a consent decree, she said. The sponsors must have another agenda, Strickland said. “The only other intent we see is to carve out the rights of school personnel to pray with their students,” she said.

This is indeed strange. And therefore suspicious. At this point, Rapturous Ronda Storms enters the picture. Here’s another excerpt:

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, demanded to know whether the consent order prevented teaching staff from wearing religious symbols or saying grace before eating a meal. Strickland said she was not an attorney and could not interpret the consent decree.

“It is simply a restatement of well established, black-letter law,” Strickland said.

“You danced around it,” Storms said sharply. “Now, you’re equivocating.”

Don’t mess with Ronda when she’s foaming at the mouth. On with the article:

Committee Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice, found fault with both sides in the dispute. “Santa Rosa obviously has problems,” Detert said. “Somebody has to get a clue about overreaching in the religion department.”

And now we come to the end:

The bill passed the Senate Education Committee 7-1. Sen. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from Miami and a former principal, was the only opponent. An identical version by Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, is on the House calendar and could pass that chamber as soon as today.

What can we say? The whole situation is crazy. But then, that’s why the Founders wisely decided to keep government separate from religion.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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10 responses to “Ronda Storms & Prayer in Florida Schools

  1. Gabriel Hanna

    I know nobody agrees with me, but there are two halves to the First Amendment–establishment and free exercise–and if you can’t wear a cross or a kippah or pray over your own food when you are in a school, your rights to free exercise are being violated.

    It’s the difference between secular and secularizing–and both sides do what they can to blur the distinction, so it’s hard to say sometimes what’s been going on. I think Ronda Storms’ question is relevant–exactly what is illegal according to this ruling? If you can’t exercise a right without being sued, it’s not a right anymore.

    This isn’t France–not yet.

  2. Gabriel Hanna says:

    I think Ronda Storms’ question is relevant …

    You’re in one of those moods again, aren’t you?

  3. Gabriel Hanna

    You’re in one of those moods again, aren’t you?

    Not a bit. I just happen to think that ALL the Constitutional rights are important, even the ones practiced by icky people.

    A right to the free exercise of my religion does me no good, because I don’t have one. I don’t carry or own a gun, so I don’t “use” the Second Amendment. I don’t own a newspaper, so I don’t exercise the right to a free press.

    That doesn’t mean those rights aren’t important and aren’t to be defended. And a true thing is true even if uttered by Rhonda Storms.

  4. Ronda Storms’ question was rabble-rousing with no basis in fact. She wasn’t interested in defending constitutional rights but in promoting her own agenda. There was nothing in the court order to prevent anyone from wearing “a cross or a kippah or pray over your own food”.

  5. Gabriel Hanna

    There was nothing in the court order to prevent anyone from wearing “a cross or a kippah or pray over your own food”.

    That’s YOUR opinion. What does the lawyer who is suing you for doing one of those things think it means?

  6. @ Gabriel Hanna, “What does the lawyer who is suing you for doing one of those things think it means?”

    Uh, citation? I don’t see any evidence of that happening here.

  7. Gabriel Hanna

    Uh, citation? I don’t see any evidence of that happening here.

    In this particular case, perhaps not, but it is disingenuous to pretend that lawsuits like that can’t happen. That’s the point of Ronda Storms question–she tried to get an opinion on what was and what was not protected. Because you don’t know until you get sued. Granted, by not asking a lawyer’s opinion she’s grandstanding, but the principle is valid.

  8. Yeah Gabriel, lawsuits happen all the time. Even asking a lawyer’s opinion doesn’t mean you won’t get sued anyway. One can always play the game “What If…” but that doesn’t make it so.

  9. Gabriel Hanna

    The abuse of the establishment clause by lawyers is not a fantasy. We’ve all heard of Michael Newdow, and you must have heard of this

    and this by now.

  10. On the other hand, those cases show how pervasively religion inserts itself into government and how far they will go to keep their influence felt.