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Thursday, Dec 18, 2014
South Tampa News

O’Neill: CAIR ads on HART buses a win for tolerance


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Would that this were not a big deal. Officially, it’s now permissible for the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to advertise on local buses.

This means we can soon expect to see some Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) buses wrapped with the message: “CAIR FLORIDA: Embracing Diversity at Work, Defending Civil Rights in the Community.” It will join the ranks of buses wrapped with ads ranging from Uncle Bob’s Self Storage and eBay to the Florida State Fair and St. Leo University.

But up until a couple of weeks ago, that CAIR ad had been banned.

HART’s board had rejected it on religious grounds back in August. The board (by an 8-2 vote) had seen the ad as a promotion of religion — not as a promotion of diversity and offer of free legal advice to those of all religions and persuasions. It was a reminder that this is Hillsborough, and conservative activist Terry Kemple has a lot more followers than does CAIR Florida’s Tampa executive director Hassan Shibly.

But to be fair, let’s go back to May of this year for more context, back when CAIR first approached HART. The message then, however well-intentioned, had a decidedly different feel. It was to be part of a national campaign and sought to play off the word “jihad,” as in “holy war,” which, given the world we live in, arguably connotes something wholly uncomfortable to a lot of folks. “Jihad,” however, had been reframed to mean generic, personal “struggle.” As in “#MyJihad is to stay fit” or maybe “#MyJihad is to be a better person.” Self-helpful. Motivating. Harmless.

That HART looked askance at that one, I get. We live in a world where religious fanaticism is demonstrably the root of so much senseless violence. Where the cherry picking of Holy Books — and that goes for those citing Old Testament score-settling — is all too familiar.

CAIR then retooled, but was initially rejected with its diversity approach because it was still seen by the HART board as a de facto promoter of religion. Eventually the combination of a vague policy and hypocrisy — all the while allowing ads for St. Leo, a “Catholic teaching institution” — were made manifest amid increasing public support for CAIR.

Now the transit board has formally reversed itself and, appropriately, it’s a victory for tolerance and, frankly, common sense. This isn’t about the wearing of burqas at Bucs games or lobbying city council for the imposition of sharia law. This is about benignly promoting diversity at the expense of cultural bias.

And this, however circuitously, was about sending a parallel message: We’re bigger than a small-minded, ambiguous policy that became a vehicle, in effect, for facilitating a form of discrimination.

Perhaps HART could take out a house ad on one of its buses to underscore its new commitment.

Making pregame prayer an issue

It’s downright admirable that Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford is going out of his way to take a principled stand against a blatant case of arbitrary separation of church and state. Specifically, he takes issue with Pasco Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning, who has told county football coaches they shouldn’t be praying with their teams. More legalistically speaking, Browning said it’s inappropriate for adults to initiate, lead or participate in prayer with students while working in their “official duties.” Something about school district policy and the U.S. Constitution.

Weatherford found that unacceptable and cited the Legislature’s passage last year of the “inspirational messages” law that enabled districts to permit policies allowing students to offer inspirational messages, including prayers, at school functions. But the bill, while inclusive in spirit, actually precluded school personnel from leading such prayers. Weatherford has called the ban on coach-led praying “un-American” and said, if necessary: “I will work on a bill for it next year.”

Two points.

First, this remains an ongoing, dicey, nuance-laden area of the law. Actually, it’s more about tradition. Let’s get real. How many prayer advocates would vouch for the deity’s priorities including high school football? Friday Night Lights are that luminous? And, frankly, how many would want to be privy to the upshot of a coach-led prayer before a big game? I’ve been around them in a previous incarnation. It’s basically this: “Thank you, Jesus. Now let’s go out and kick some a--.”

Frankly, it would make more sense to go secular and just invoke the sentiments of Grantland Rice: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the Game.”

Second, Weatherford should be more concerned with his separation of priorities.

To date, he’s given no indication that he would get out in front and do the right thing when it comes to Internet sales taxes, Medicaid expansion, “stand your ground” repeal and texting-while-driving as a primary offense.

Ironically, that would be worth praying for.

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