Florida bill would give DeSantis power to allow pre-game prayers at school sporting events

Bill sponsor Jay Collins, R-Tampa, said the bill is intended to provide state “oversight” of the athletics board.

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click to enlarge Florida bill would give DeSantis power to allow pre-game prayers at school sporting events
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A proposal that would give Gov. Ron DeSantis power to shape the Florida High School Athletic Association Board of Directors and allow schools to offer pre-game prayers over stadium public-address systems got backing Monday in the Senate.

The Senate Education PreK-12 Committee voted 9-3 along party lines to approve the bill (SB 308).

The measure would revamp oversight of the FHSAA, including shrinking its board from 16 to nine members. DeSantis would get authority to appoint eight of the nine members. The state education commissioner or a designee would serve as the ninth member.

Bill sponsor Jay Collins, R-Tampa, said the bill is intended to provide state “oversight” of the athletics board.

“It just makes sure that we as a state have oversight over this board, how it’s going, and it’s in the best interest of our students,” Collins said.

Currently, the board is made up of four public-school representatives, four private-school representatives, two district school superintendents, two school board members, three representatives appointed by the state education commissioner and the commissioner or a designated representative, according to the organization’s website.

Before Monday’s meeting, Senate Democrats attributed the proposed changes to a recent decision by the FHSAA board to drop questions from a physical-evaluation form about student-athletes’ menstrual cycles.

The questions asked about athletes’ first menstrual periods, most recent menstrual periods and how many periods the athletes had in the past year.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said the FHSAA board “did the right thing” by dropping the questions.

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, likened the proposed changes in the FHSAA’s oversight to “authoritarianism.”

“The governor, unfortunately, wants to be the governor, wants to be the chief justice, he wants to be the (House) speaker and the Senate president, all at the same time. And I know people hate when we say it, but it is fascist. It is authoritarianism when you’re looking at these types of things,” Jones told reporters.

The measure also would require the State Board of Education, which is primarily made up of DeSantis appointees, to ratify any proposed changes to the FHSAA’s bylaws. In addition, the state board would have to approve the hiring of the FHSAA’s executive director.

A similar House bill (HB 225) would require the state education board to approve the FHSAA’s budget.

Members of the FHSAA’s board opposed the proposed Senate changes Monday.

Richard Finlayson, an FHSAA board member who is principal of Aucilla Christian Academy, pointed to potential “unintended consequences” of changing the board’s makeup.

“My concern is that, representative form of government is a great thing,” Finlayson, who was elected to the FHSAA board by private schools in North Florida, said. “Being able to have a voice through those who represent us is a really positive thing. And within this bill, it takes away a voice away from those member schools.”

The bill also would require allowing schools to make “opening remarks” of up to two minutes on public-address systems at stadiums and other venues before championship events.

“The athletic association may not control, monitor or review the content of the opening remarks and may not control the school’s choice of speaker,” the bill says.

The issue of speech over public-address systems during high-school athletic events is the subject of a long-running lawsuit that stemmed from an incident in 2015 in which Christian schools were barred from saying a prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a state championship football game. A federal district judge sided with the FHSAA, but Tampa’s Cambridge Christian School has appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, cited the part of the bill that would allow pre-game prayers as a reason for voting against the measure.

“As someone who is not of the majority faith, how will this bill impact students or participants in sporting events of different faiths?” Berman asked Collins.

“I don’t think it does. This isn’t forcing school prayer, this is allowing comments and remarks. The schools generally speak and discuss those things up front between the schools,” Collins said.
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