Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Orders Moment Of Silence For First Amendment He Just Shivved
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continues his play for the 2024 Republican nomination for president with yet another appeal to theocrats. DeSantis signed a bill into law Monday that would require public schools to set aside at least one minute of silence for students to pray or meditate.
The bill signing took place at Shul of Bal Harbour, a Jewish community center in Surfside. It reportedly had the feel of a campaign event, and DeSantis appeared to “blush when the Rabbi Sholom Lipskar introduced him as a 'great governor and future world leader.'" He's neither of those things, but Lipskar's probably convinced himself that bad opinions are different from blatant lies.
Florida was already one of 18 states that give schools the option to provide students a moment of silence, instead of another moment devoted to learning math. This new law would place Florida among the at least 15 other states that compel schools to have a moment of silence. This sounds like the "establishment of religion," but DeSantis has encountered little in the First Amendment that he's bound to respect.
"It's something that's important to be able to provide each student the ability, every day, to be able to reflect and to be able to pray as they see fit," DeSantis said.
What's important for schools to provide each student is a nutritious meal so their rumbling stomachs don't drown out their teachers. They can receive prayer time anywhere. You don't have to buy a moment of silence at the Piggly Wiggly. It's free. The state isn't providing a service or filling a public need. This is all performative, as people more religious than I am, like Nietzsche, would probably agree.
The Warren Supreme Court in 1962 ruled that "the official organization, sponsorship, or endorsement of school prayer in public schools" violated the First Amendment. Religious conservatives have actively sought loopholes in the decision. Ronald Reagan proposed a constitutional amendment restoring organized prayer in schools. Reagan asked Congress in 1984 "why can't [the] freedom to acknowledge God be enjoyed again by children in every schoolroom across this land?" and in 1987, he pushed for Congress to end "the expulsion of God from America's classrooms." Republicans have more faith in government than they let on if they believe the state can erase God with an edict. Besides, as the old joke goes, there's prayer in schools whenever a teacher hands out test papers.
An ongoing constitutional tension has been between accommodation of religion and its endorsement. Reagan and DeSantis's rhetoric clearly points to the latter. You wouldn't need to pass these new laws to ensure the accommodation of religion. Students are already permitted to pray silently. There's no atheistic thought police. The Supreme Court in 1985 struck down an Alabama moment-of-silence mandate because it had “religious intent." DeSantis isn't subtle with his intent, but subtlety isn't required with our current Trumped-up Supreme Court.
DeSantis went on to say:
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.
As America's Best Christian, Betty Bowers, observed, the Constitution has 4,543 words and not a single one is “Jesus" or his smarter brother, Jebus. James Madison is considered the “father of the Constitution," and unlike Republicans who won't shut up about what they pretend to believe, Madison was "intensely private about his own religious convictions." He shifted the language in the First Amendment from the “toleration" of religion to “free exercise of religion." Conservatives argue that this meant Madison opposed a rigidly secular government, but that ignores historical context: Madison actively opposed the establishment of a national religion, which he believed would make people close-minded. Guess we owe him a Coke.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, had no patience for religion or for plowing his own fields. When he ran for president in 1800, he was attacked as an atheist but claimed, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know," which is like when I declare, “I have but one God and his name is Robinson!" while thunder crackles around me.
In 1823, Jefferson wrote to his frenemy John Adams:
"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding…. “
This, unfortunately, has not come to pass, so Jefferson doesn't get a Coke.
Florida's shameless, Bible-thumping governor screwed over public schools in May when he signed another expansive voucher system bill. If DeSantis is so big on “school choice," he should choose to spare public schools his culture war battles.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."