Miami Herald | By Sommer Brugal | March 16, 2023
The Miami-Dade School Board Wednesday unanimously approved a measure to commemorate the National Day of Prayer in the district’s public schools — an item that prompted board members to ensure Florida’s motto, “In God We Trust,” be displayed in the school board room.
Introduced by Vice Chair Danny Espino, the measure calls for the district to recognize Thursday, May 4, 2023, as the National Day of Prayer, in accordance with Congress designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer. And according to Espino, it “creates a space for everyone of all faiths” to participate.
“In the name of inclusion, public education has made a space for a variety of points of views. Space for voluntary prayer, unfortunately,” has been left out, Espino said. The item did not mandate anyone to pray, he said.
The board passed the measure 8-0, with Roberto Alonso absent.
The board approved the recognition for the first time last year, when now-Doral Mayor Christi Fraga proposed the item. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Espino in November to replace Fraga when she won her mayoral bid.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, public elementary and secondary schools should have no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools.
The DOE notes in its “Overview of Governing Constitutional Principles” related to school prayer, however, that U.S. Supreme Court decisions have said “teachers and other public school officials, acting in their official capacities, may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities, nor may school officials use their authority to attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.”
DIFFERENT SCENE FROM LAST YEAR
The measure was met with little discussion from the community and board members compared to last year, when dozens of parents and organizations like the Christian Family Coalition, which says on its website that its mission is “To Empower Families At The Grassroots Level to Give Them A Voice In Their Government Again!” flocked to the meeting to encourage the board to adopt the item.
At the time, most were in favor of the measure, with some saying it was their right — and their children’s right — to pray in school. Some evoked the Constitution; one claimed that religion in this country was under attack. Some praised the board for ensuring the item spoke to all faiths. Most who spoke espoused the Christian faith.
On Wednesday, similar sentiments were expressed.
About two dozen spoke on the item at the School Board meeting, with the majority urging the board to adopt the item and again referencing the Christian faith. Representatives from the Christian Family Coalition and Alex Serrano, the executive director of County Citizens Defending Freedom, a national organization with ties to conservative and politically active Christian groups, also spoke, as they did last year.
Board member Luisa Santos on Wednesday stressed the importance of remaining “an inclusive district for all.” Some of the most formative experiences she’s had have come from learning from and praying with people of different faiths, she said.
Last year, though, some students and others argued against the motion, saying the idea that everyone could pray together was disheartening and ignorant, claiming members of different faiths pray differently. Others were upset by former board member Lubby Navarro’s comments that suggested recognizing a day of prayer would “send a message to our community that we have one creator, one creator, and that is God and Jesus Christ.”
Navarro’s comments prompted Steve Gallon to apologize to the community on behalf of the board for what could have been perceived as offensive and divisive. Navarro resigned in December following the implementation of a new ethics law.
FLORIDA’S MOTTO DISPLAYED
At the board workshop March 8, Alonso proposed the board include an amendment to the measure: Require the official state motto, “In God We Trust,” be “prominently displayed” behind where the board members are seated for meetings on the school board dais.
Displaying the motto is embodied in board policy and state statute.
“As we focus on this day of prayer, where we all focus in on God, one thing we’re missing inside of our own chamber when we come in is something that is very near to this state and to this country, which is the state motto,” Alonso said.
Some members at the workshop worried about combining the display of the state motto with the day of prayer into one item, but because policy already existed, the move to display it did not require a vote.
On Wednesday, it was displayed above the dais.