Florida Christian school appeals for pregame prayer
Do state-sanctioned PA announcements count as government speech?
A Florida case over pregame prayer is not over yet, according to attorneys. They vowed to appeal again after a private school in Tampa, Fla., was denied the right to a short prayer over a publicly owned loudspeaker before football games.
A federal judge on March 31 dismissed Cambridge Christian School’s claims that the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) violated its right to freely exercise its religion. The FHSAA, a state-sanctioned nonprofit organization that governs high school athletics in Florida, denied the school’s request to include a prayer over the public address system prior to the 2015 final playoffs at the city-owned Citrus Bowl (now known as Camping World Stadium) in Orlando.
This will be the second time the school has appealed. In the first go-round, the trial court decided in favor of FHSAA, but an appeals court overturned the ruling in November 2019 and sent it back for consideration of further evidence. The unanimous three-judge appeals court panel concluded that a loudspeaker prayer did not necessarily communicate a state endorsement of religion and that the FHSAA denial put too much of a burden on the free exercise of religion. But the trial court ruled against the school again.
“This case is not about whether two Christian schools may pray together at a football game,” wrote U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards-Honeywell in the latest ruling. The Obama appointee noted players and coaches met at the 50-yard line of the Citrus Bowl to pray together before the game and again on the sidelines afterward. But the court said that because the FHSAA approves the script for any messages, all speech over the PA system is government speech and not subject to the First Amendment.
First Liberty Institute’s Jeremy Dys, who represents the school, said it will appeal again—this time on a factually complete record of over 10,000 pages of documents. Dys argued that the court erred by not considering the wider practice followed at athletic games throughout the state and at a prior championship game in 2013, when a pregame prayer was allowed.
The attorney also indicated the FHSAA exercised no real editorial control over the content of pregame messages, copying and pasting into the script whatever messages advertisers, from Hooters to Coors Light, provided. “The bottom line is that the FHSAA is treating prayer differently from nonreligious messages, [which has the effect of] telling high school kids that prayer is wrong,” he said.
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