Florida prayer bill advocates try to override governors veto

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — With his veto of school prayer legislation last week, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles dealt prayer advocates a setback, but not a decisive blow.

After attempting for three years to put a law on the books authorizing student-led prayer in Florida's public schools, conservative lawmakers are now turning their attention to a possible override of the governor's veto.

In a state where religious conservatives are on the rise and public opinion supports prayer in schools, Jewish activists hailed last week's veto as an important victory over the Christian right but conceded that it amounts to only a temporary reprieve.

"Certainly it's a victory, but it is far from over," Jack Karako, southeast regional director of the American Jewish Congress, said of Florida's ongoing battle over school prayer.

Stephen Silberfarb, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, called the recent showdown with religious conservatives and the Christian Coalition merely "a precursor of battle lines to come" in Florida and across the country.

In his veto message, Chiles, who is a Democrat, cited his personal belief in the value of prayer, but said the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended to provide citizens with freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.

"I believe personally that a prayerful and spiritual life are richly rewarding," Chiles wrote. "I commend it, and I recommend it. But endorsing such a life is for me to do as an individual. It is different for the state."

The legislation, which was tacked onto a larger school reform bill, would have authorized public school boards to allow the use of a student-led invocation or benediction at secondary-school commencement exercises, sporting events or student assemblies.

It passed the state House 92-24 and was approved 33-6 by the Senate.

Florida's Jewish community spearheaded a grassroots campaign against the measure. The governor's office received a record 20,000 letters and phone calls from citizens across the state.

A diverse delegation of religious leaders, local Jewish officials and Jewish legislators also personally pleaded with Chiles to veto the measure.

"Listening and trying to place myself in the circumstance of a minority, however, gives me a different perspective," Chiles wrote. "I do not believe that the right to petition the Divine should be granted or withheld by a majority vote."

Florida state Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat and a Jew, said Chiles' meetings with Jewish leaders clearly "helped him to put himself into our shoes."

"I think the governor did a tremendous service to the schoolchildren of Florida," Schultz added. "We avoided a whole lot of potential agony and discomfort."

Supporters of the school prayer legislation, meanwhile, have vowed to continue the fight.

Rep. Joseph "Randy" Mackey, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said "uninformed" opponents of the bill set a "terrible example" for children by spewing "hatred and venom."

"People's religious freedoms have been quashed since the beginning of time," Mackey said. "This is just another sad example of that fact that we as a society have not progressed as far as some would like to believe."

Prospects for an override, meanwhile, remain unclear.

Although the Legislature has adjourned, a new Legislature could take up the issue again after elections take place in November.

Mackey said the bill's supporters are deciding how to proceed.

The Christian Coalition, which pushed hard for the bill, has said it would push equally hard for an override of Chiles' veto.