Florida governor signs bill that protects religious freedom in schools

FILE PHOTO - Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks at a press conference about the Zika virus in Doral, Florida, U.S. August 4, 2016. | Reuters/Joe Skipper/File Photo

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has passed a bill that allows students to pray during school days and express their religious views in class assignments, on their clothing, or jewelry.

SB 436, also known as the "Religious Liberties Act," was signed by Scott on Friday and is scheduled to 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," said 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," he added.

According to CBN News, the new law will require school districts to treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on a certain subject the same way it treats a secular viewpoint.

The measure would also allow students to wear clothing, accessories and jewelry with religious themes to the extent secular items with symbols or messages are also allowed.

Additionally, students would 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.

While the legislation allows students to express religious beliefs in their assignments, it prohibits reward or penalty based on religious content where the assignment requires student viewpoint to be expressed.

The bill also contains provisions to protect the religious liberty of faculty members and other school employees. It mandates that public school employees cannot be prevented from participating in religious activities on school grounds initiated by students before or after the school day, as long as the said activities are voluntary and do not conflict with the employee's other assignments.

Critics of the legislation have argued that current law and court rulings already protect the religious liberties of both students and teachers.

Orlando Sentinel reported that there were concerns that the new law will blur the separation of church and state required by the U.S. Constitution, undermine science education, and expose students to religious teachings against the wishes of their parents.

Some believe that the new law would help in holding schools accountable for how the students are treated when it comes to the expression of religious beliefs.

"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.

He contended that the legislation is a "positive move toward affirming and protecting the religious liberties of students, parents and employees in the Florida public schools."