The day before a Florida House of Representatives session, Rep. Kimberly Daniels was visiting state prisons. The gate on one read: “In God We Trust.”
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, does a child have to wait until they get to prison to see “In God We Trust”’?” said State Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat.
A new state law set to take effect July 1 will redirect millions from sales taxes to fund vouchers for literacy tutors and increase the percentage of teachers’ union members required to pay dues. Section 22 of HB 7705 also requires school boards to display “In God We Trust” in all schools and associated buildings. It was amended to add language from another bill Daniels sponsored: HB 839.
“When we remove God,” she said in a February house session, “we remove hope.”
As students across Florida traveled to Tallahassee in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead and dozens more injured on Valentine’s Day, Daniels had a vision that her bill would unite the nation.
“I heard a voice say, ‘Do not politicize what has happened in Florida, and do not make this a thing of division,” she said. “This is a time for the Republicans and this is a time for the Democrats to meet because this is an issue.”
The School Board of Alachua County is preparing to do what is it mandated.
“I have my doubts about that – not that she had a vision, I’m not questioning that – but whether this would unify the country, I don’t know,” board member Eileen Roy said.
Gainesville is home to nearly a hundred religious organizations, which leaves Roy worried about the potential legal backlash. In the past, she said, school districts have been sued for carrying out a government mandate that critics deemed unconstitutional.
“’In God We Trust’ is in the Florida flag,” she said. “It’s on every currency that we use. I just don’t think it’s something we need to spend our time and our resources on right now.”
But, Roy said, the school board will do what it is told. “Unfortunately,” she added.
The cost to place the phrase in a “conspicuous place” has not been determined. Roy said the school board is still discussing how it will follow the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation in Florida is studying the law and looking for ways to protect Floridians’ rights, said Kara Gross, the organization’s legislative counsel.
“Public schools are for secular learning,” Gross said. “The concern is that mandating a religious enforcement goes against the very crux of church and state.”
Gross also said the new law endorses one set of religious beliefs, which she said sends a thinly veiled message: Only students who believe in God are welcome.
“It makes some people feel welcome and makes others feel like they’re not welcome,” Gross said. “That’s why this is so concerning.”
Some students at Gainesville High School would rather the focus be on spending money on things that need fixing, like better smelling classrooms.
“This sounds like a joke, but maybe some motion sensor Febreeze for the halls or heated water in the bathroom during winter,” said eleventh-grader Salma Mohamed.
The high school has plumbing issues that would be expensive to fix, 17-year-old junior Lennon Barrow added. Occasionally, the school stinks as a result.
“Our school just smells awful,” Mohamed said.
Her family celebrates Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting. In the past, Mohamed has stayed home because the school calendar does not accommodate for Eid, but “this year, I chose to go to school because I didn’t want to miss class.”
Mohamed said the school system should focus on education and not religion. For those that want to integrate their faith in education, she said there are private schools.
“The bill seems useless and problematic,” Mohamed said. “There’s no benefit that comes from this other than making certain students uncomfortable.”
Alka Patel, 52, of Pensacola, said while she would prefer that her daughters go to private school, she is fine with them attending a highly ranked public school. Although she is surprised the bill passed, she doesn’t mind as long as no specific religion is mentioned.
“You are not being forced to acknowledge a certain religion that you may not follow,” Patel said. “With elections coming up this year, I felt lawmakers would not risk alienating voters.”
For Daniels, including “In God We Trust” has nothing to do with political affiliation.
“He is not a Republican or a Democrat. He is not black or white,” Daniels said, referring to the Christian God. “He is the light, and our schools need light in them like never before.”