Florida State Senators voted to approve legislation that abolishes previous rules that prevented religious services and events from being conducted on school property.
"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," Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley said. "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 bill was introduced by Baxley, who said the state's lawmakers should take a stand and allow students and teachers to practice their constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion, regardless of what personal beliefs they hold.
With the new legislation in place, WRN reports Florida's public schools are obliged to allow students to lead religious prayers during school operating hours, grant access to school facilities for student religious groups and allow students to pray at school-run events -- activities that previously were strictly prohibited in the state.
Proponents of the bill indicated they thought the bill would serve an important role in reversing what they view as an overbearing crack down on free speech, such as preventing the wearing of religious-themed jewelry like a crucifix, or including references to religious figures in their school work.
The bill in its current form not only allows religious expression, but also shields students and teachers from persecution or discrimination in any form for their religious views.
The bill's detractors said it infringes too heavily upon the separation of church and state. They also fear it could lead to students and teachers being ostracized or discriminated against if they're of non-Christian faiths or non-religious.
"It's religiously coercive, divisive and unconstitutional," said Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach.
With religious expression already protected under the state and U.S. constitutions, Democrats said further guidance from the Legislature wasn't necessary.
While Florida is not the only state to allow religious expression in public schools, it is in the minority, reports WRN. The legislation in its current form appears to treat all religions with equal value.
Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, raised concerns that the measure might give way to Satanic cults practicing in Florida's public schools, because all religious faiths would have equal access to practice openly, according to the Miami Herald. Democratic Rep. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville said: "Bills like this have passed in six other states and they aren't having these problems."