Scoring the Florida Legislature On Moral, Religious Matters

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

For 30 years, ever since the Christian right made an alliance with the Republican Party, governments have routinely addressed religious and moral issues, and the 2012 Florida Legislature was no exception. What was interesting this go-around, however, was what didn’t pass, as much as what did.

Casino gambling, for instance.  Miami, Tampa and Panama City are natural casino destinations, but this year a bill to allow three $2-billion resort casinos in South Florida didn’t even clear its first House committee hearing.

The GOP’s social and religious conservatives held the powerful gaming industry at bay and in this instance, served the public good by preventing the scourge of casinos.

But the party’s praying wing failed to get their way on an anti-abortion measure. A bill that passed the House would have imposed a 24-hour waiting period and required doctors to take annual ethics training. A bipartisan coalition of senators, including three female Republicans –- Paula Dockery, Nancy Detert and Evelyn Lynn -– blocked it from being heard on the Senate floor.

Except for a provision that new abortion clinics be owned by physicians – an attempted blow against Planned Parenthood – the bill’s requirements didn’t seem particularly onerous, but you have to admire the guts of those three senators. A lot has been written in recent months about the Republican Party’s so-called “war on women.” In this instance, women within the party declared enough and fought back.

Another failure that brings a sigh of relief was the absurd “Application of Foreign Law” bill, which passed the House, but never made it to a vote in the Senate. The bill would have banned courts from accepting foreign laws or tribunal decisions as part of non-business contracts. If this sounds strange, it’s because the bill was aimed at one thing only: Sharia law, the Islamic legal code that lawmakers seem convinced is about to take over American courts.

The measure was modeled on legislation propagated by anti-Islamic activist David Yerushalmi. Ostensibly, the worry is that divorce settlements, child custody arrangements or other domestic affairs governed by Sharia would be approved by Florida courts, but this is a phantom concern.

The Florida Bar called the bill unconstitutional and “a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.” Not only did Muslim groups oppose the bill, so did Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League. Orthodox Jews regularly use religious codes to govern their domestic affairs and this legislation might have affected them, too. Jewish lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, played a role in killing the bill, and good riddance.

One bill approved by both houses, unfortunately, allows school boards to permit student-led prayer in public schools. Although seen as a victory for the Christian right, even conservatives like John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council are dubious about its constitutionality. Lawmakers knew it likely violates legal precedent about separation of church and state, but passed it anyway.

Gov. Rick Scott ought to veto the measure, but you can be sure he won’t. Expect the inevitable lawsuit and the inevitable court ruling that strikes it down. The whole charade is a waste of time and precious tax dollars.

Assuming the prayer measure fails in the courts, the Legislature went 1-for-4 on the moral and religious front. As in baseball, not a very good average.

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