An ancient rabbi once said, “The Torah given to Moses was written with black fire on white fire.” But then, that’s often the case with important texts: What’s between the lines speaks volumes beyond the ink on the page. So it is with Florida’s new “moment of silence” law — a thinly veiled attempt to push religious prayer in public schools.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 529 into law Monday. It mandates public K-12 teachers to set aside one to two minutes for silent reflection. However, teachers are explicitly prohibited from making any suggestions as to how students fill that time.
What could be more innocent? Has “wokeness” gone so far that we are now supposed to be offended by literally nothing? By absolute silence? But the problem with HB 529 isn’t the legislation’s neutral-sounding language; instead, it’s the sectarian, religious agenda of its political supporters. Here, context matters.
Constitutionally, whether moments of silence are allowed in public schools comes down to this question of neutral intent. School-led “prayer” is always unconstitutional, as affirmed in Wallace v. Jaffree in 1985. “Moments of silence” can be OK, but only if they don’t implicitly promote religion — whether a specific faith, or religion in general, per 1997’s Bown v. Gwinnett County School District.
On this point, HB 529’s supporters have been particularly careless. While all explicit references to “prayer” were scrubbed from the bill, the provision requiring a moment of silence is surrounded by language on the “study of the Bible and religion.” During the signing, Gov. DeSantis was even clearer about the religious intent of the legislation, proclaiming, “The idea that you can just push God out of every institution and be successful, I’m sorry, our founding fathers did not believe that.”
Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez similarly invoked the idea of “religious freedom,” echoing the Trump-era change in school prayer guidelines during the 2020 National Religious Freedom Day. This is not to mention that the bill was signed at a religious institution (a Jewish community center called the Shul in Surfside), and was part of an event in which HB 805 also was signed into law, allowing for the operation of private, religious ambulances. The latter bill’s sponsor, Republican Mike Caruso of Delray Beach, opined at the same event: “…this bill, I see it as a first step of rescuing our communities and our society from the purging of God out of it. And this is a first step of getting God back into our communities.” All of this is very strange context for a law that, supposedly, has nothing whatsoever to do with promoting religion in the public classroom.
Still, some may insist that HB 529 is just a meaningless distraction, red meat for DeSantis’ political base. Who cares about two minutes of silence when so many of our public schools are underperforming, underfunded and facing severe teacher shortages?
But again, context is everything. Those advocating for the introduction of religion into our public schools are also the most outspoken supporters of private alternatives to public education. Gov. DeSantis, for his part, has greatly expanded the use of vouchers, redirecting millions in taxpayer dollars from the public school system to private, often religiously affiliated, organizations.
Politics aside, a more-or-less consistent ideology is at work here. It is one that has little faith in secular, public institutions as such. These, it seems, must be supplemented with infusions of private, religious belief, or else starved of resources and eroded. Far from an innocent distraction, HB 529 is symptomatic of this underlying skepticism about secular institutions, and whether they can (or should) be preserved for the public good. This is the unspoken context, the “white fire,” behind the letter of Florida’s newest education law. If we don’t pay sufficient attention to it, we risk being burned.
Landon Frim, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and an ordained rabbi.