Florida judge rules against PA-system pregame prayer for Christian school, which plans to appeal

A Florida Christian school lost its long battle to pray over the PA system at football games when a judge ruled it would be improperly religious “government speech.”

Jesse Panuccio, attorney for Cambridge Christian School in Tampa, told The Lion on Friday the school will appeal the ruling within the month.

Cambridge Christian had filed a lawsuit against the Florida High School Athletic Association for having prevented a pregame prayer over a stadium speaker before the school’s 2015 state championship game against University Christian School of Jacksonville.

But after some seven years of up-and-down litigation, U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell ruled against Cambridge Christian on March 31, writing that use of the loudspeaker constituted “government speech.” She added that, “even if some portion of the speech is considered private speech, the court finds no constitutional violation occurred.”

Honeywell had previously dismissed the school’s lawsuit in 2017 – erroneously, an appeals court later ruled in reinstating the case. Judge Honeywell subsequently heard final arguments in the case in December 2021 before issuing her 38-page ruling last week.

Cambridge had argued the association disregarded its right to free speech.

Honeywell acknowledged that Christian schools have every right to pray before and after school football games. But she ruled that “nothing about the facts of this case demonstrates that delivering the prayer over the PA system is part of CCS’s sincerely held religious beliefs,” and that “the inability to pray over the loudspeaker at away games did not burden CCS’s right to exercise religious freedom.”

Cambridge also argued that the association had allowed PA prayer in the same stadium at the 2012 state championship game. But the judge wrote that the 2012 instance “is an aberration which cannot be relied upon to evidence a history of private speech.”

Panuccio said he feels the court record is replete with overwhelming evidence that the association discriminated against religious speech. He said the principle involved is both national and vital to freedom.

“The case is important because it will help establish the principle that religious speech cannot be discriminated against, or treated differently from other speech,” he said. “And that a government organization cannot single out religious groups or religious speech for disfavored treatment.

“At the end of the day here, what the Florida government has said here is that when two religious schools meet in a game that is sanctioned by that government organization, they can no longer express who they are, and express their religious beliefs.”