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Christian school sues for right to pregame prayer

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP) — When Cambridge Christian and University Christian high schools met for the Florida Class 2A championship football game last December, announcers used the Camping World Stadium public address system to introduce the players, make announcements, advertise sponsors, and play music for the cheerleading squads. But one form of speech — prayer — was banned from the PA system.

To allow a pregame prayer for two Christian schools and their fans would violate the Constitution, argued attorneys for the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA). Both schools disagreed, and on Sept. 27, one of them sued.

First Liberty and local Florida attorneys filed suit on behalf of Cambridge Christian School following a months-long effort to convince the FHSAA, which governs high school athletics in Florida, that its policy and interpretation of the Constitution were in error.

“The FHSAA rejected Cambridge’s request for prayer specifically because it was religious in nature,” Jeremy Dys, First Liberty Institute senior counsel, said. “That’s what is called ‘viewpoint discrimination,’ meaning that, because the FHSAA, a state actor, does not agree with the religious viewpoint being espoused in the private speech, they reject it. That’s unconstitutional and illegal.”

The suit, Cambridge Christian School Inc. v. Florida High School Athletic Association Inc. asks the U.S. District Court in Tampa to halt implementation of the prayer policy and require the FHSAA to “implement a content-neutral policy for use of the stadium loudspeaker that does not discriminate against religious speech.”

In its defense, the FHSAA said as a “state actor” it had to hold the line of separation of church and state. Allowing prayer over the PA system would have crossed that line, it claimed.

FHSAA attorneys cited the 2000 Supreme Court decision Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, which involved student-led prayer before public high-school football games in a small southeast Texas town. A student sued the district, claiming the prayer violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court agreed and prohibited the public, pregame prayers.

But the Santa Fe ruling cannot be applied in a vacuum, Dys said. Rulings in similar cases recognized the distinction between private religious speech in a public venue and state sponsorship of religious speech in the same venue.

“The FHSAA contends that the mere uttering of religious speech, here a prayer, in the context of a state-run, public facility, the Citrus Bowl, over a state-owned PA system is sufficient to convert that speech into state speech,” Dys explained in an email.

Prior to the Dec. 4, 2015, state 2A championship game, the heads of both schools sent separate emails to Roger Dearing, FHSAA executive director, requesting use of the PA system for pregame prayer — a decadeslong practice for both schools.

After consulting FHSAA attorneys, Dearing denied the request. As a public facility maintained with tax dollars, the Camping World Stadium (formerly called the Citrus Bowl) was “‘off limits’ under federal guidelines and precedent court cases,” Dearing told the schools.

The organization doubled-down on its stance, posting a statement on its website in January detailing and defending its decision. The FHSAA stated it did not deny the act of prayer, simply the means by which it would be said, and posted photos of the two schools praying midfield before and after the game.

During a Sept. 26 FHSAA board meeting, the members declined to consider a request from school parents, teachers, and First Liberty Institute attorneys asking the organization to adopt a content-neutral policy that respects religious freedom. Cambridge Christian School filed suit the next day.

Without relief from the court, FHSAA will continue to deny Cambridge — and any Christian school — access to the stadium’s PA system for prayer, the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit states, “By denying access to the loudspeaker, the FHSAA denied the students, parents, and fans in attendance the right to participate in the players’ prayer or to otherwise come together in prayer as one Christian community.”

In a similar suit, Washington public high school football coach Joe Kennedy appealed his wrongful dismissal case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 3. Kennedy filed a lawsuit against the Bremerton School District on Aug. 9 after he was fired from his part-time role for silently praying on the football field following school games.

Kennedy’s request for a preliminary injunction allowing him to continue coaching was denied Sept. 19 by a U.S. District Court.