Florida law permits public school students to organize prayer groups, religious clubs and to worship in gatherings before, during and after the school day.
Since 2011, state statute has allowed public school districts the option of providing “objective” study of religion and the Bible in high schools.
A 2019 bill pre-filed by a self-professed “demon buster” Democrat, known for her controversial remarks and “In God We Trust” legislation, would make that option mandatory.
House Bill 195, the "Study of the Bible and Religion Act," pre-filed by Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, would require each of the state’s 67 public school districts to offer courses in religion, Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible as electives.
HB 195 would amend a 2011 statute that permits districts the option of offering “objective” study of the Bible by making it mandatory to provide the curriculum as electives, meaning students are not required to take the courses.
Daniels, a former Jacksonville city council member first elected to the House in 2016, is the founder of Spoken Word Ministries with churches in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale. She has authored several books on religion and describes herself as a former "exorcist,” a “demon buster” and “apostle.”
An African-American, Daniels has curried regional, even national, notoriety with colorful, controversial commentary in sermons, once claiming, “Jews own everything” and thanking God for slavery.
“I thank God for slavery. If it wasn’t for slavery, I might be somewhere in Africa, worshipping a tree,” Daniels told her Jacksonville congregation in a well-documented sermon about a decade ago.
In 2018, she introduced HB 839, which mandates public schools and buildings display the motto, “In God We Trust” in a “conspicuous place.” The bill passed the House 97-10 and was signed by Gov. Rick Scott in April.
In 2017, Daniels’ HB 303, the "Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act," was passed. It bans districts “from discriminating against students, parents, and school personnel on basis of religious viewpoints or expression.”
Contrary to common misconception, religious curriculum is permitted in public schools.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring schools to have daily Bible readings and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, but did not ban the Bible from classrooms.
The court, in its Abington Township v. Schempp ruling, noted, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
According to the American Association of School Administrators, public schools in at least 43 states offer some type of Bible courses and at least seven have adopted laws similar to Daniels’ proposal requiring districts to provide Bible study as electives.
There are at least two 2019 bills similar to Daniels’ HB 195 pre-filed in state legislatures elsewhere.
In Indiana, Senate Bill 373 would allow districts to “require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science,” post “In God We Trust” and include “study of the Bible” in comparative religions classes.
North Dakota’s SB 2136 would allow districts to offer an elective Bible studies class as part of its social studies curriculum. The American Civil Liberties Union has called it "unconstitutional" and vows to challenge it in court.
Critics argue it is difficult to offer Bible study courses with a secular, literary emphasis without blurring the line between academics and devotional instruction.
A 2006 study by the Texas Freedom Network concluded Bible courses taught in public schools were “explicitly devotional” and taught from a Protestant Christian perspective that the Bible is divinely inspired.
ACLU of Florida Political Director Kirk Bailey told Florida Politics his organization does not necessarily oppose HB 195.
“There are acceptable ways to teach about the Bible: Schools can teach comparative religion classes or about the Bible’s relationship to literature, art or music. However, it is exceedingly difficult to do so in a constitutionally permissible manner,” Bailey said. “Ultimately, parents, not the government, should be in charge of religious education. To ensure one faith is not promoted over another in our public schools and to protect our students’ First Amendment rights, we’ll continue to monitor this bill to see how it progresses during this legislative session.”
HB 195 is Daniels' second pre-filed bill for the 2019 session and comes amid ethics complaints, including her recent admission to filing false financial disclosures in 2012, 2013 and 2014 that did not include $1 million owed on a Broward County home and not listing a Jacksonville home as an asset or its mortgage as a debt.
Daniels’ admission that her financial disclosures are inaccurate is part of an agreement with the state’s ethics commission. It has been forwarded to House Speaker Jose Oliva for review. The commission will meet Jan. 25 to consider her case.