A Florida Christian school is continuing a years-long legal battle after being prevented from praying over a loudspeaker system before a championship game.
Cambridge Christian School has appealed a lower court’s decision against it to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Cambridge alleges violations of the rights to free speech as well as free exercise of religion.
In 2015, Cambridge’s football team played University Christian School in the state championship. Before the game, Cambridge requested to use the stadium’s PA system to conduct a prayer, which was mutually requested by its opponent. The request was denied by the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) on the basis that as a “state actor” and host of the event, they could not allow the prayer, and that the prayer would be construed as “government speech.” The Lion previously reported on this event and ensuing legal action.
After Cambridge sued the FHSAA, the decision fell into the hands of U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell, who dismissed the case in 2017. However, in 2019, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal, putting the case before Honeywell again.
This time, Honeywell ruled in favor of the FHSAA, granting its motion for summary judgment. In her ruling, she found that “the inability to pray over the loudspeaker at away games did not burden CCS’s right to exercise religious freedom,” having noted earlier that the issue was access to the loudspeaker system for the prayer, not prayer itself.
Honeywell also found 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.” The Lion also reported on this ruling.
In its new appeal, Cambridge Christian’s Aug. 8 brief argues the “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). … Because the Prayer Ban constitutes viewpoint discrimination, and has been arbitrarily applied, it violates CCS’s free speech rights.”
Other organizations have submitted briefs to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals supporting one side or the other. The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that a “private religious school does not have a constitutional right to commandeer the PA system at a state-sponsored athletic competition.”
Notably, the Florida Department of Education supports the Christian school’s position, claiming the FHSAA “completely disregarded core First Amendment principles … solely because of the religious message of the prayer, even though secular, non-governmental messages were allowed,” according to First Liberty Institute, which represents Cambridge Christian.