Fla. Education Department says athletic association should not ban prayer from high school football games

A Religious Liberty Challenge At The Citrus Bowl

Florida’s Department of Education has expressed their support for two Christian high schools who were barred from having a prayer given via loudspeaker at a football game held at the Citrus Bowl Stadium.

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran sent a letter to the Florida High School Athletic Association last Friday, denouncing the decision to prohibit the prayer as “deeply troubling.”

The letter, a copy of which was emailed to The Christian Post on Monday, called on the Association to review “its policies and procedures to ensure religious expression is permitted to the greatest extent possible under the law.”

“Policies that are overbroad or restrictive may deny students their constitutional right to private religious expression,” wrote Corcoran. “Such policies must be immediately repealed and replaced with policies that are consistent with the religious freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution.”

Regarding the denial of the request by Cambridge Christian School of Tampa and University Christian School of Jacksonville to have a prayer delivered over the Citrus Bowl loudspeaker, Corcoran commented that he did “not understand why this request was denied.”

“The state must not censor private religious speech of its students, even [when] that speech is given at a state-sponsored event or on public property,” continued Corcoran.

In December 2015, Cambridge Christian and University Christian were ordered by the Association to not give a prayer over a loudspeaker at 2A state championship game.

Roger Dearing, the head of the FHSAA at the time, told the schools that the Citrus Bowl "is a public facility, predominantly paid for with public tax dollars,” and thus was “'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," stated Dearing, as reported by First Coast News.

In response, Cambridge Christian brought a lawsuit against the Association in September 2016. The Christian school was represented by the First Liberty Institute.

In February 2017, a magistrate court sided with the Association. District Court Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell affirmed this decision in a ruling released in June 2017.

“… 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,” wrote Honeywell.

“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.”

However, in November, a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a unanimous decision partly reversing the district court ruling.

Eleventh Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus authored the court's opinion, concluding that the lower court had been “too quick to dismiss all of Cambridge Christian’s claims out of hand.”

“Taking the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, as we must at this stage in the proceedings, the schools’ claims for relief under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses have been adequately and plausibly pled,” wrote Marcus.

“And while we agree with the district court that the loudspeaker was a nonpublic forum, we conclude that Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged that it was arbitrarily and haphazardly denied access to the forum in violation of the First Amendment.”

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