October 3, 2022

School Challenges Ruling on Pre-Game Prayer

A Tampa Christian school has asked a federal appeals court to find that the Florida High School Athletic Association unconstitutionally prevented a prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a 2015 high-school football championship game.

In a 74-page brief filed Monday at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, attorneys for Cambridge Christian School cited legal precedents, including a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of a Bremerton, Wash., high-school football coach who lost his job after praying on the field after games.

Cambridge Christian wants the Atlanta-based appeals court to overturn an April ruling by U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell, who said the Florida High School Athletic Association is a “state actor” and did not violate First Amendment rights when it refused to allow a prayer over the public-address system before a game between Cambridge Christian School and Jacksonville’s University Christian School.

“FHSAA (the association) claims that all speech over the loudspeaker is government speech,” the school’s brief said. “Yet the record shows that FHSAA permits schools and other private actors to deliver a variety of messages over the loudspeaker: welcoming remarks, promotions, music, and even prayers (at all games except the championship). Moreover, FHSAA uses the loudspeaker to call for moments of silence, deliver ethical messages, promote sportsmanship, and honor persons and events. But it will not allow these same themes to be expressed under a religious banner. Because the prayer ban constitutes viewpoint discrimination, and has been arbitrarily applied, it violates CCS’s (Cambridge Christian’s) free-speech rights.”

The brief is dotted with references to the high-profile June U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, along with other court precedents. The Supreme Court’s conservative majority sided with Joseph Kennedy on free-speech and free exercise of religion claims.

As an example, Cambridge Christian attorneys quoted the Kennedy case and an earlier case as they argued that during the “past term the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Free Exercise Clause protects not just religious faith but also ‘the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life through the performance of … physical acts.’”

They argued that communal prayer is a “sincere religious practice that permeates life” at Cambridge Christian.

“Communal prayer is conducted during morning announcements over the PA system; in the classroom; on the athletic fields; and at performing arts events, staff meetings, trustee meetings, graduations, and just about every other gathering of all or a portion of the CCS community,” the brief said. “This religious practice is a manifestation of deeply held religious belief.”

But in her April ruling, Honeywell wrote that the case “is not about whether two Christian schools may pray together at a football game,” noting that players and coaches met on the field of Orlando’s Camping World Stadium to pray before and after the 2015 game.

“The issue before the court is whether the First Amendment required the FHSAA (the association) to grant the teams unrestricted access to the PA system to deliver the prayer over the loudspeaker during the pregame,” Honeywell wrote. “Thus, the questions to be answered are whether the inability to pray over the loudspeaker during the pregame of the state championship final football game violated CCS’s (Cambridge Christian’s) First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. … (The) court concludes that the First Amendment does not apply because the speech at issue is government speech, but even if some portion of the speech is considered private speech, the court finds no constitutional violation occurred.”

Honeywell initially dismissed the case in 2017, but the appeals court in 2019 overturned the dismissal and sent the case back to Honeywell for further consideration. That led to her April judgment in favor of the association.

Tags: News Service of Florida

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