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Chiles Vetoes Bill Allowing Student-Led Prayer

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In a setback for advocates of prayer in the public schools, Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida has vetoed a bill authorizing voluntary student-led prayer at graduations, assemblies, and sporting events.

Voicing profoundly mixed feelings about the issue, the governor said that as much as he believed in the power of prayer, he could not sanction a measure that would compromise the rights of religious minorities.

"The public schools in our pluralistic society are grounded upon the principle of inclusion," Mr. Chiles wrote in his three-page veto message late last month. "School programs which at their best bring people together in common bonds--at sporting events, school assemblies, and commencement exercises--could be turned into events that tear people apart."

The issue created deep division--and keen interest--among Floridians, who flooded Mr. Chiles' office with thousands of telephone calls and letters on both sides.

Tension over the bill also grew because the prayer provisions imperiled popular education measures such as stronger high school graduation standards and smaller elementary school classes.

Citing those provisions as well as the prayer portion of the bill, the state's elected education commissioner criticized the Democratic governor, who waited a full two weeks before deciding the fate of the bill, for failing to let it become law without his signature.

"The governor's veto has not resolved the issue of voluntary school prayer, but it has undermined the bipartisan effort to increase standards for Florida students," said Commissioner Frank T. Brogan, a Republican.

The issue is unlikely to resurface during this year's session. Observers knew as soon as the prayer language was woven into the education bill that lawmakers had handed Mr. Chiles a wrenching dilemma.

States' Fervor Wanes

Opponents of the measure, including many Jewish leaders as well as some Christians and Muslims, were delighted by the governor's veto. But supporters, among them the Christian Coalition of Florida, harshly criticized his action and vowed to fight on next year.

Mr. Chiles' veto leaves seven states--Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee--that authorize student-initiated prayers at graduation ceremonies and other events, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The fervor in state legislatures to consider prayer measures appeared to hit its peak last year and declined somewhat this year, said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for the group.

While bills were introduced this spring in at least four states, the Florida bill went the furthest.

The Kentucky House passed a bill in February authorizing student-initiated prayers, but the bill died in the Senate.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against clergy-led graduation prayers in a 1992 case, Lee v. Weisman, but it has declined to clarify the constitutionality of student-led prayers. Many legal observers believe the high court wants to let the issue percolate in lower courts. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

Prayer Called Personal

The Florida measure would have allowed school boards to adopt resolutions authorizing benedictions or invocations at school-related functions as long as they were student-led and "nonsectarian and nonproselytizing" in nature.

A leading opponent of the measure, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Broward County, said the veto would spare students "a lot of potential agony and discomfort."

"The decision to pray should not be imposed on the minority by the majority," she said. Ms. Schultz, who is Jewish, recalled squirming in her seat as a child in New York state when an 8th-grade teacher prayed aloud daily to "a God I wasn't familiar with."

Gov. Chiles also recalled school prayer sessions in his youth, but said those memories contributed to his ambivalence.

"School prayer was an everyday occurrence for me as a student in public school, and as a member of the Christian majority," he wrote. "I had, and still have, feelings that this is something we should be allowed to do."

Ultimately, though, he said he had to put aside such personal sentiments for the common good.

The governor's remarks prompted John Dowless, the executive director of the state chapter of the Christian Coalition, to accuse Mr. Chiles of "talking out of both sides of his mouth."

Mr. Dowless said the group would keep pushing for a similar measure in the future so that "students of faith are not discriminated against and their rights are no longer trampled on."

"Since when do students lose their freedom of speech, including religious speech, the minute they enter a schoolhouse?" Mr. Dowless said.

Reform Proposals Die

With his veto, Mr. Chiles also struck a popular package of school reforms that he favored. The bill would have raised the grade-point average needed to graduate from high school from 1.5 to 2.0, made algebra a graduation requirement, and reduced class sizes in the early grades.

Mr. Brogan, the schools chief, disputed Mr. Chiles' contention that the state board of education and local school boards could effect many of the nonprayer provisions without legislation.

The commissioner argued that letting the bill become law would almost certainly have led to a challenge in court, which he said was the appropriate arena to resolve the prayer question.

Florida District in Court

Similar policies have been the subject of several court battles in recent years.

In Florida, students and parents in 1993 challenged a policy in the Duval County schools setting aside two minutes at graduation for seniors to use as they please, an opportunity they have used for prayers and other reflections.

An appeal of a lower-court ruling in favor of the district's policy is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

In a 1993 ruling in a case from Texas, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld student-initiated, student-led prayers at graduation. The Supreme Court declined to disturb the appeals court's ruling in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District.

Although that ruling is binding only in the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, it has been cited by prayer advocates as the impetus for a nationwide wave of school board and state actions authorizing student-led prayers at graduations and other school events.

In January, however, a separate panel of the 5th Circuit court struck down portions of a 1994 Mississippi law that authorized "student-initiated voluntary prayer" at assemblies and sports events. The language of the Mississippi measure is similar to that contained in the Florida bill.

The court said in Ingebretsen v. Jackson Public School District that the law "tells students that the state wants them to pray." The court left intact the part of the law authorizing graduation prayers, citing the earlier 5th Circuit ruling in Jones.

And a 1993 Alabama law that authorizes student-led prayers at "compulsory or noncompulsory" student assemblies, sports events, and graduation ceremonies has been challenged in a lawsuit filed by an assistant principal in the DeKalb County school district. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)

That challenge is pending.

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