The bill states a student may organize prayer groups, religious clubs and other religious gatherings before, during and after the school day “in the same manner and to the same extent that a student is permitted to organize secular activities and groups.”

PANAMA CITY — Legislation awaiting approval from Gov. Rick Scott would allow different forms of religious expression in public schools.

The new law, co-sponsored by state Rep. Brad Drake, whose district includes northern Bay County, states a student may express his or her religious beliefs in coursework, artwork and other written assignments free from discrimination. It also states a student may wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display a religious message. It further says a school district “shall” treat a student’s voluntary expression of religion in the same manner it treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular viewpoint.

“Student expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissable subject may not be excluded from the limited public forum,” the final version of the bill states.

The bill states a student may organize prayer groups, religious clubs and other religious gatherings before, during and after the school day “in the same manner and to the same extent that a student is permitted to organize secular activities and groups.”

“A group that meets for prayer or other religious speech may advertise or announce its meetings in the same manner and to the same extent that a secular group may advertise or announce its meetings,” the legislation states.

Drake, R-Eucheeanna, said the legislation is similar to a bill he proposed several years ago that passed.

“And it was in response to what happened in Santa Rosa County, when the school board passed an ordinance that would not allow a young lady to speak at her graduation because they were afraid that she may lend some reference to her talents and success based on her faith in God,” Drake said. “It prohibited the school board from enacting ordinances that would discriminate against those that wanted to pray in schools.”

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, filed the latest bills that passed this session, Senate Bill 436 and House Bill 303.

Mike Stone, a Panama City attorney who heads the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he has concerns about the legislation.

“It’s a long piece of legislation that seems to be talking about encouraging religious activities in schools, encouraging teachers and administrators to get involved in student-sponsored activities,” he said. “I would be concerned. I’ll have to read it more carefully, but it sounds to me that it’s the same old threat, or risk of putting minorities in a box, shaming them into taking part in the majority’s beliefs, and perhaps even discriminating against minorities, LGBT kids and the like.”

Stone said encouraging religious activities in schools seems to be all the bill is about.

“Some of us still believe that the schools are for education and religious instruction is for the home, but apparently we are moving in a different direction in this country. The pendulum is swinging back,” he said.

Florida Citizens for Science, an advocacy group that pushed for state science standards that required the teaching of evolution, said on its website it and other groups have concerns about the legislation. The website points out Americans United for Separation of Church and State opposes the bills.

“Most troubling, these bills will harm students’ religious freedom,” the website states. “Both (bills) would require teachers to permit religious expression in all school assignments without penalty, opening the door for students who so desire to use class time to proselytize and advance their own religious views on classmates. A student, for example, could use every assignment that includes a class presentation as an opportunity to convince any non-believers in the class that they need to accept Jesus to achieve salvation. Alternatively, students in science classes could try to turn every class discussion into a debate about evolution vs. creationism.”