Christian High School Continues Legal Battle to Allow Prayer at Football Game

(Photo: Beth Dare Photography, courtesy of Liberty Institute)Cambridge Christian School students in Florida pray at a high school football game.

A Florida-based Christian high school is appealing a district court decision that forbade it from having a prayer broadcasted before its football team's 2015 championship game.

Cambridge Christian School of Tampa and University Christian School of Jacksonville were denied the right to have a prayer given on the loudspeaker when they faced each other at the Citrus Bowl stadium in Orlando.

The First Liberty Institute filed a brief last Friday on behalf of Cambridge, whom they are representing, before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the Introduction of the brief, First Liberty argued that the case was a matter of "viewpoint discrimination" when the Florida State High School Athletic Association denied the schools' request for a loudspeaker prayer.

"The FHSAA, as well as the magistrate court and district court that presided over this case, wrongly ignored the well-pleaded factual allegations of the verified complaint, as well as the FHSAA's own admission of its viewpoint-based reasons for taking the actions it did against Cambridge Christian," the brief states.

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Wikimedia Commons/DoctorindyCitrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando where the teams of Cambridge Christian School and University Christian School of Jacksonville were denied the use of the public address system in saying a pre-game prayer during last year's Division 2A state football championship in Florida.

"More specifically, the courts ignored the fact that the FHSAA's decision to deny Cambridge Christian access to the stadium loudspeaker was admittedly motivated solely by the religious viewpoint that Cambridge Christian intended to express. And, by ignoring those admissions and misapplying this Court's jurisprudence, both courts incorrectly denied Cambridge Christian's motion for preliminary injunction."

First Liberty Deputy General Counsel Jeremy Dys said in a statement released Friday that the FHSAA's decision to bar the prayer means the organization is effectively telling the schools that "they cannot pray in public."

"By banning two private Christian schools from praying over the loudspeaker before a football game while allowing other, nonreligious messages to come across the same speaker, the FHSAA is telling high school kids that prayer in public is wrong," stated Dys.

"We hope the Eleventh Circuit will recognize this for what it is: an assault on the First Amendment and the censorship of religious speech—because it is religious—of two private, Christian schools."

In December 2015, Cambridge Christian School and University Christian School faced each other at the 2A state championship game at the Citrus Bowl.

Although both teams agreed to have a prayer broadcasted on the loudspeaker before the game, a practice Cambridge did for their games, the FHSAA shut down their request.

FHSAA head Roger Dearing told the schools that the Citrus Bowl "is a public facility, predominantly paid for with public tax dollars, [making] the facility 'off limits' under federal guidelines and precedent court cases."

"In Florida Statutes, the FHSAA (host and coordinator of the event) is legally a 'State Actor,' we cannot legally permit or grant permission for such an activity," added Dearing, as quoted by First Coast News.

In September 2016, First Liberty and the law firm Greenberg Traurig filed a lawsuit against the FHSAA over the rejection of the loudspeaker prayer.

In February, a magistrate court sided with FHSAA and then in June, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida affirmed the report and recommendation of the magistrate court.

"... the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge that the entirety of the speech over the Stadium loudspeaker was government speech and that, even if it were not, the Stadium loudspeaker is a non-public forum," read the district court ruling.

"Therefore, the FHSAA was permitted to deny Cambridge Christian's request to use it to broadcast prayer during a school sporting event organized and governed by a state entity."

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